ARLINGTON, VA – At 10:29 p.m. last evening the Navy confirmed it hit a falling and potentially dangerous defense intelligence satellite using an SM-3 missile fired from the deck of the USS Lake Erie in the Northern Pacific.
Officials say the missile likely destroyed its intended target, a 1,000 pound tank of toxic hydrazine fuel.
"There are good first indications the shot was successful. There was an explosion on impact and over 80 pieces of debris were detected after initial assessments," an official said.
The blast is a good sign because the warhead was non-explosive, meaning the explosion was most likely caused by hitting the gas tank. The large amount of debris detected is also positive because it indicates they struck one of the satellite's more massive sections, and the tank is one of its largest.
The missile hit the satellite about three minutes after launch as the spacecraft, roughly the size of a school bus, traveled in polar orbit at more than 17,000 mph.
Land observers with the Joint Integrated Missile Defense Team in Colorado Springs and Strategic Command in Omaha will continue to assess the levels of damage along with the three Navy ships still in the Northern Pacific.
A statement released by the Department of Defense said the debris will begin to enter the Earth's atmosphere almost immediately and "nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24 to 48 hours".
Any remaining debris it said "should re-enter within 40 days." The Navy hopes that any pieces of the satellite that do not burn will land in the ocean.
The use of the Navy missile amounted to an unprecedented use of components of the Pentagon's missile defense system, designed to shoot down hostile ballistic missiles in flight — not kill satellites.
The operation was so extraordinary, with such intense international publicity and political ramifications, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, rather than a military commander, was to make the final decision to pull the trigger.
The government organized hazardous materials teams, under the code name "Burnt Frost," to be flown to the site of any dangerous or otherwise sensitive debris that might land in the United States or elsewhere.
Also, six federal response groups that are positioned across the country by the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been alerted but not activated, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said. "These are purely precautionary and preparedness actions only," he said.
More will be learned about the success of the hit when General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs the Pentagon press tomorrow at 7 a.m.
FOX News' Justin Fishel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.