HOUSTON – Military plans to shoot down a damaged U.S. spy satellite carrying toxic fuel will not concern the crew aboard the international space station, commander Peggy Whitson said Saturday.
The military hopes to smash the satellite as soon as next week — just before it enters Earth's atmosphere — with a single missile fired from a Navy cruiser in the northern Pacific Ocean.
It was unclear how close the satellite would be to the space station when it is shot down. NASA referred questions to the Defense Department, which did not immediately return a message seeking clarification.
Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and French astronaut Leopold Eyharts will still be in orbit 215 miles above Earth when the satellite is targeted. The satellite will be about 150 miles up when the shot is fired.
Whitson said NASA and the Department of Defense "love the station crew" and would not put them in harm's way.
"So, no, we're not worried about it," she said in a news conference with the 10-person shuttle-station crew.
Atlantis and its seven astronauts will be safely back on Earth before the Pentagon takes aim. NASA plans to open up the backup landing site in California to increase chances of an on-time landing next Wednesday even if weather is a problem in Florida.
Left alone, the satellite would be expected to hit Earth during the first week of March. About half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft would be expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and would scatter debris over several hundred miles.
Military and administration officials said the satellite is carrying fuel called hydrazine that could injure or even kill people who are near it when it hits the ground.
Known by its military designation US 193, the satellite was launched in December 2006. It lost power and its central computer failed almost immediately afterward, leaving it uncontrollable. It carried a sophisticated and secret imaging sensor.
The astronauts aboard the orbiting shuttle-station complex focused their attention Saturday on the inside of the new Columbus lab.
They have all day Saturday and just half a day Sunday before the hatches between shuttle Atlantis and the international space station are sealed.
On Friday, a pair of spacewalking astronauts wrapped up work on the exterior of Columbus, installing a package of sun-gazing instruments as well as a huge box of radiation, orbital debris and other experiments.
During their 7 1/2-hour spacewalk, Rex Walheim and Stanley Love also installed handrails on Columbus, and removed a broken gyroscope from the space station and loaded it into the shuttle for next week's ride home.