Lolita C. Baldor / Associated Press – 2008-01-30 23:29:45
WASHINGTON (January 30, 2008) — The U.S. military is developing contingency plans to deal with the possibility that a large spy satellite expected to fall to Earth in late February or early March could hit North America.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads of U.S. Northern Command, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the size of the satellite suggests that some number of pieces will not burn up as the orbiting vehicle re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and will hit the ground.
“We’re aware that this satellite is out there,” Renuart said. “We’re aware it is a fairly substantial size. And we know there is at least some percentage that it could land on ground as opposed to in the water.”
A U.S. official confirmed that the spy satellite is designated by the military as US 193. It was launched in December 2006 but almost immediately lost power and cannot be controlled. It carried a sophisticated and secret imaging sensor but the satellite’s central computer failed shortly after launch. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified as secret.
Renuart added that, “As it looks like it might re-enter into the North American area,” then the U.S. military along with the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will either have to deal with the impact or assist Canadian or Mexican authorities.
Military agencies, he said, are doing an analysis to determine which pieces most likely would survive re-entry. But he cautioned that officials won’t have much detail on where or when it will crash until it begins to move through the atmosphere and break up.
Renuart added that there does not as yet appear to be much concern about sensitive technologies on the satellite falling into enemy hands.
“I’m not aware that we have a security issue,” he said. “It’s really just a big thing falling on the ground that we want to make sure we’re prepared for.”
The satellite includes some small engines that contain a toxic chemical called hydrazine—which is rocket fuel. But Renuart said they are not large booster engines with substantial amounts of fuel.
Video images of the satellite captured by John Locker, a British amateur satellite watcher, show it to be about 13 feet to 16.5 feet across. He believes it weighs a maximum of 10,000 pounds. Locker calculated its size with data on its altitude and location provided by other amateur satellite watchers, using the International Space Station as a yardstick.
Satellite watchers—a worldwide network of hobbyists who track satellites for fun—have been plotting the satellite’s degradation for a year. They estimate it is now at an altitude of about 173 miles, and Locker believes it is dropping about 1,640 feet a day.
Where it lands will be difficult to predict until the satellite falls to about 59 miles above the Earth and enters the atmosphere. It will then begin to burn up, with flares visible from the ground, said Ted Molczan, a Canadian satellite tracker. From that point on, he said, it will take about 30 minutes to fall.
In the past 50 years of monitoring space, 17,000 manmade objects have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Associated Press writer Pamela Hess contributed to this report.
On the Net:
• U.S. Northern Command: http://www.northcom.mil/
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
US Warns Out-of-control Spy Satellite Is Plunging to Earth
Paul Harris / The Observer
LONDON (January 27, 2008) — A large American spy satellite is expected to fall to Earth some time in the next month, officials said yesterday.
It is unclear where the space debris might come down, but it could hit ground in late February or March. It is also not known whether the satellite could contain potentially hazardous materials, such as a nuclear-powered reactor.
Officials said they had lost control over the satellite and had informed countries around the world about the potential problem. ‘Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the threat … we are looking at potential options to mitigate any damage this satellite may cause,’ National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told the AP news agency.
Johndroe declined to say whether such measures could include shooting down the satellite with a missile.
China recently conducted such an operation by destroying one of its own satellites from Earth to test a space missile system. However, that move created a cloud of fragments and other satellites had to be manoeuvred into new orbits to avoid being hit by the debris.
Other satellites have fallen to earth harmlessly before. In 2002 parts of a science satellite rained down over the Persian Gulf. The largest re-entry took place when Skylab, a 78-ton abandoned space laboratory belonging to Nasa, fell from orbit in 1979. It came down in a fiery mass of debris that fell mainly into the Indian Ocean and onto Australia.
No one was harmed in what was a media sensation. One San Francisco newspaper offered a reward for anyone who brought a piece of Skylab to its newsroom. The $10,000 prize was collected by a young Western Australian man who found a piece of it on his roof in the small town of Esperance and travelled to America with it.
In 2000 Nasa engineers brought down a much smaller satellite into a distant part of the Pacific Ocean. That is likely to not be possible in this case as the object has lost all power and propulsion. This makes it impossible to dictate where or when the satellite will come down — or if it will just burn up in the atmosphere.
One of the most disturbing examples of space pollution occurred in a type of Soviet satellite launched from 1967 to 1988. The Rorsat-class reconnaissance satellites contained a nuclear reactor as a power source. It was later shown that 16 of 31 Rorsats had been leaking potentially radioactive coolant into space, creating a trail of droplets in orbit.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
Disabled Spy Satellite Threatens Earth
Eileen Sullivan / Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A large US spy satellite has lost power and could hit the Earth in late February or early March, government officials said Saturday. The satellite, which no longer can be controlled, could contain hazardous materials, and it is unknown where on the planet it might come down, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified as secret. It was not clear how long ago the satellite lost power, or under what circumstances.
“Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, when asked about the situation after it was disclosed by other officials. “Numerous satellites over the years have come out of orbit and fallen harmlessly. We are looking at potential options to mitigate any possible damage this satellite may cause.”
He would not comment on whether it is possible for the satellite to perhaps be shot down by a missile. He said it would be inappropriate to discuss any specifics at this time.
A senior government official said that lawmakers and other nations are being kept apprised of the situation.
The spacecraft contains hydrazine — which is rocket fuel — according to a government official who was not authorized to speak publicly but spoke on condition of anonymity. Hydrazine, a colorless liquid with an ammonia-like odor, is a toxic chemical and can cause harm to anyone who contacts it.
Such an uncontrolled re-entry could risk exposure of US secrets, said John Pike, a defense and intelligence expert. Spy satellites typically are disposed of through a controlled re-entry into the ocean so that no one else can access the spacecraft, he said.
Pike also said it’s not likely the threat from the satellite could be eliminated by shooting it down with a missile, because that would create debris that would then re-enter the atmosphere and burn up or hit the ground.
Pike, director of the defense research group GlobalSecurity.org, estimated that the spacecraft weighs about 20,000 pounds and is the size of a small bus. He said the satellite would create 10 times less debris than the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003. Satellites have natural decay periods, and it’s possible this one died as long as a year ago and is just now getting ready to re-enter the atmosphere, he said.
Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow with the National Security Archive, said the spacecraft likely is a photo reconnaissance satellite. Such eyes in the sky are used to gather visual information from space about adversarial governments and terror groups, including construction at suspected nuclear sites or militant training camps. The satellites also can be used to survey damage from hurricanes, fires and other natural disasters.
The largest uncontrolled re-entry by a NASA spacecraft was Skylab, the 78-ton abandoned space station that fell from orbit in 1979. Its debris dropped harmlessly into the Indian Ocean and across a remote section of western Australia.
In 2000, NASA engineers successfully directed a safe de-orbit of the 17-ton Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, using rockets aboard the satellite to bring it down in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean.
In 2002, officials believe debris from a 7,000-pound science satellite smacked into the Earth’s atmosphere and rained down over the Persian Gulf, a few thousand miles from where they first predicted it would plummet.
Associated Press writers Pamela Hess and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.