Spy sat to come home… not too secretly

By Phil Plait | January 28, 2008 12:00 pm

The news is buzzing that due to a loss of control, a US spy satellite is going to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime in February or March.

This sucks, for many reasons. Obviously, it’s one less piece of equipment that will gather intelligence Bush will ignore.

Haha! That one was for the weenies who hate it when I make political comments.

But seriously, besides the loss of an important tool, the loss of control over the satellite means it cannot be guided in for a safe re-entry over an ocean. Satellites, especially big ones (this one is reported to be maybe 10 meters long) don’t completely disintegrate when they come back in. They break apart, and some pieces can survive. This includes very dense parts (like, say a telescope mirror) which can withstand re-entry, and ironically, very light pieces, which slow down so rapidly that they don’t have enough time to burn up. They slow to a few hundred kph and then just fall the rest of the way.

These lighter pieces include fuel tanks, which are large and hollow. This particular satellite may have used hydrazine as a propellant, which is toxic. Having some of that in a leaky fuel tank hitting the ground is not a great scenario.

However, I think it’s unlikely that it’ll hit anyone or damage property. The Earth is still 70% or so ocean, so right away the odds of hitting land are 30% at best. Moreover, most of the land on this planet is unpopulated, and where it is populated, it’s mostly lightly populated. However, this doesn’t mean the odds of it doing something bad are 0; a Soviet satellite came down in Australia a few years ago. I’d much rather know this thing will burn up over the vast area of the Pacific ocean.

Of course, the government isn’t really talking, since this was a secret mission. It’s possible more info will leak out, so stay tuned here or at UniverseToday for more info.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Politics, Science

Comments (74)

Links to this Post

  1. Spysat reentry « David Kirkpatrick | January 29, 2008
  1. Michael Lonergan

    Would it be possible to find out what it’s orbital track was, and give an idea of where it would come down based on that? Or is that top secret as well?

  2. Thomas Siefert

    This sucks, for many reasons. Obviously, it’s one less piece of equipment that will gather intelligence Bush will ignore.

    Not so much ignore as misinterpreting minarets as long distance missiles.

  3. TDL

    I still remember as a kid when the Soviet Cosmos 954 came down in the northern part of Canada. That was a nuclear powered satellite – not the kind of debris you want to spread around populated areas.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmos_954

  4. Here’s some good news about global warming: The Earth is 70% ocean at the present, yes. However, given that climate change is accelerating, I expect that figure will rise steadily over the coming decades. So the good news is that in another 30 years or so the Earth will be 85% water, making it even less likely that future satellites will hit a populated area!

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be a fish.

  5. Tom

    I wish they’d tell us a bit more about this satellite. Such as
    -onboard power source: Is it solar, or does it use RTG or even a small reactor, like some soviet sats used to? I’m thinking about Cosmos 954, that broke up over Northern Canada and spread radioactive debris over a large area in 1978.
    -orbit: Being a spysat, I assume its a polar orbit, and so it could hit anywhere. But is it in a different orbit, an orbit that means it can’t hit some parts of the globe?
    -what sort of hardware is on the sat, and is any of it heavy or light enough to survive reentry? If so, how big/heavy is it? Big enough to damage property & people?
    -Is the onboard propellant hydrazine? If so, how much is in the tanks, and can any of it be burned/vented off? If not, then what is it?

    And Finally, if it hits my house, do I get salvage rights?:)

  6. scottmsg

    The satellite is most likely USA-193 which was launched on a Delta II into an orbit with an inclination of 58.5 degrees in December 2006. Since it’s a Delta II launch, the mass is less the 10000 pounds.

    There’s a good discussion about this at NASASpaceflight.com.

  7. Michelle

    I think they said there could be hazardous materials inside it so… maybe a small reactor is possible. That would suck. Massively.

    I also heard it’s the size of a bus.

  8. Eric

    From what I have read, this satellite may not have ever worked – having a computer failure soon after launch. So there may not be any loss of an intelligence resource since it never worked to begin with..

    Eric A

  9. socom

    Haha! That one was for the weenies who hate it when I make political comments.

    How about those of us who don’t mind your politics, but cringe when you make a childish ass of yourself?

  10. Utakata

    socom wrote:

    “How about those of us who don’t mind your politics, but cringe when you make a childish ass of yourself?”

    Yet another lame attempt to discredit the obvious.

  11. Daffy

    A childish ass is someone who continues to believe the words of a known liar just because they like his political party.

  12. Leon

    I’d much rather know this thing will burn up over the vast area of the Pacific ocean.

    I expect there may be some Hawaiians who would disagree! ;-)

  13. Mary

    Now for a completely random, yet relevant reply! I don’t know why but this post reminds me of Sims II. If you have a Sim stargaze without a telescope, sometimes a satellite falls out of the sky and crushes them, killing them. You can sell the remains of it for 1, 999 dollars or something like that. I know it would be no laughing matter if the spy satellite does hurt someone but the video game version is still kinda funny.

    From a frequent lurker,

    Mary

    PS- Everyone has ridiculous things to say about politics on both sides. People just got to learn to have thick skin. But tell me… are you a Republican by any chance? :P

  14. I knew it!! Asteroid 2007 TU24 is the cause of the satellite’s problems!!!

    (Sarcasm Intended)

    We could always have a world-wide lottery to bet where the satellite will fall, and all the proceeds could go to something worthwhile…

    like me.

  15. Thanks for the post Phil, I had just emailed asking about this, you’re either psychic or very fast. Maybe you need to take the Randi challenge. ;)

  16. Murff

    We have F-15 that are equipped to shoot down satellites, why not just run a quick mission (which would be invaluable training btw) and end any threat… but then I’m just an enlisted guy.

  17. Michael Lonergan

    Does anyone know if this is a “Slusho” satellite? :)

    (Cloverfield humor.)

  18. Manyguns

    Hurry! Perhaps we still have time to send Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner up there. They’ll solve the problem ;)

  19. LarrySDonald

    > We have F-15 that are equipped to shoot down satellites, why not just run a quick mission (which would be invaluable training btw) and end any threat…

    I’ve heard people mention that blowing it up wouldn’t for sure be a better option, as it would make lots of lighter material (metntioned above). On top of that, by the time it was established where it’s going and all the official talk is done to do anything much, it’s probably in the ground most likely safe and sound.

    In my youth, I remember a sattelite being landed (controlled – hoped to be recovered but otherwise whatever) in a northern area of Sweden. It was considered non-populated (and therefore safe) but it turned out one guy was hearding cariboo around those parts. The proper authorities were notified and he was choppered out for a day (then back in). Proper thing to do, no? No, not really. The odds of surviving a helicoper ride up there (which are in turn pretty safe) are much much worse then being hit by the sattelite. But that wouldn’t really make big news – guy dies in helicopter crash. Guy hit by sattelite – now that’s headlines. So even knowing this full well, he was shuttled in and out. The helicopter survived, the sattelite landed, the guy is probably dead by now or otherwise still hearding cariboo. Everyone wins, except possibly reason.

    It is frustrating to not have a release at this point saying what is on board. This much is out, the thing will be out of the sky soon, so you’d figure it’s all good. I doubt small reactor, the US has never admitted to putting them in orbit (USSR did) and with the US focus on small and tidy I can’t see it’d be a viable option. Then what do I know.

  20. socom

    Daffy: A childish ass is someone who continues to believe the words of a known liar just because they like his political party.

    I said I didn’t mind Phil’s politics. Can’t you read?

    Mary: But tell me… are you a Republican by any chance?

    I said I didn’t mind Phil’s politics. Can’t you read?

    Utakata: Yet another lame attempt to discredit the obvious.

    Was that even supposed to make sense?

  21. Sergeant Zim

    Kevin, you beat me to it!

    OBVIOUSLY, TU24 is affecting this satellite, it’s only a matter of a few more hours before they ALL start going out of control, and crashing to Earth!!!

    And, of course, we all kno that 95% of thos satellites are ‘nucular’ powered, this will cause a planetwide ecological disater to rival the KT extinction!

    NASA and the ESA aren’t saying anything about it, naturally, because ‘they’ don’t want to start a panic – besides, ‘they’ are all either safely in their secret bunkers, or on the way.

    Has anybody checked out the Cape, to see if there are any shuttles prepared for launch, to whisk the Bilderburgers to Titan???

    *sarcasm off*

  22. Doc

    Wasn’t one of the original selling points of the space shuttle that we could retrieve dead sattelites?

    [facetious comment]
    See, if NASA had kept the DC-X program going right, we could have zipped up there, picked the thing out of orbit, and brought it back to be part of a display at the Smithsonian.
    [/facetious comment]

  23. Daffy

    Socom: “How about those of us who don’t mind your politics, but cringe when you make a childish ass of yourself?”

    If you are going to write such a self contradictory statement, why would you be surprised at people’s reactions?

    Can’t you write a simple declarative sentence?

  24. Quiet_Desperation

    Is Taco Bell going to have another giveaway like with Mir?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mir#Final_days_and_deorbit

    “This sucks, for many reasons. Obviously, it’s one less piece of equipment that will gather intelligence Bush will ignore.”

    The Bush Administration has been depressing for those of us who work in the reconnaissance segment of the aerospace industry. We work so fracking hard on this stuff, pushing back boundaries, and then the politicos just ignore the results, or twist it into something else. Sometimes I want to just give up and go design video game consoles or cell phones or something.

    I don’t work at the same company, but I know guys who worked on USA 193. It was a real heartbreaker, especially since the failure appears to have occurred in a tried and true part of the system. A *lot* of effort goes into these satellites to make them as foolproof as possible. Every little component, even simple resistors and capacitors, are numbered and tested. There’s racks of equipment built just to *test* the bloody thing. But sometimes [bleep] just happens. A rocket/shuttle launch is a rough ride.

    I got to watch years ago as a bird I worked on blew up on the launch pad. If you’ve ever seen years of your work go up in flames like that, you know it’s not fun. :( “Kick to the teeth” is a better description.

    It’s fun to read the articles in the media by the “experts”, though. Man, they just have *no* idea what is going on. :)

  25. socom

    Daffy: I said I don’t mind his politics, but cringe when he gets childish about it. If you can’t grasp that, maybe you need some sort of medication or remedial training.

  26. Quiet_Desperation

    “Wasn’t one of the original selling points of the space shuttle that we could retrieve dead sattelites?”

    The Shuttle was a political cluster[bleep]. Any analysis beyond that is a fruitless waste of time. ;-)

  27. Daffy

    Socum: “I said I don’t mind his politics, but cringe when he gets childish about it. If you can’t grasp that, maybe you need some sort of medication or remedial training.”

    I cringe at your childishness.

  28. phunk

    “We have F-15 that are equipped to shoot down satellites, why not just run a quick mission (which would be invaluable training btw) and end any threat… but then I’m just an enlisted guy.”

    You can’t shoot down a satellite with an f-15. You can blow up a satellite to make it stop functioning, but the pieces will still be in orbit (and still eventually fall to earth).

  29. Michael Lonergan

    Actually this whole thing brings up an interesting point. I realize that this is way early to be discussing this, as the ISS is not even finished yet, but how are they planning to bring it down, when it’s life is over? Also, how long is it expected to remain in orbit?

  30. Leon

    socom, it looks like what’s going on here is that people have fixated on the second half of what you said, and lost sight of the first part.

    The reason for it is probably because what you posted was out of proportion to what you were criticizing. Ok, Phil made a quick comment using this as a chance to take a swipe at an administration he’s critical of. I actually thought it was cute. But either way, it didn’t amount to making a childish ass of himself.

  31. Leon

    I’d expect they’ll probably deorbit the ISS they way they did Mir and Skylab.

  32. Tom

    The politics comment is unnecessarily distracting. Ten replies to this post have involved the one politics-based sentence in an otherwise useful post.

    As someone who’s commented on it before, I don’t “hate it” when you make political comments. I believe it serves as a distraction from your strong suit and adds noise to the discussion.

  33. Sespetoxri

    It seems to me without his own personal opinions Phil’s blog would take on the life of a tickertape just parroting out the Astronomy news… and also, consider, this is a blog, not a news website. Phil’s blog, his rules. You don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.

  34. Tom

    Mir is a better analogy. Skylab was uncontrolled in its descent.

    In the case of Mir, its engines were fired several times on different orbits to lower the ‘low point’ of its orbit. Then, one final burn made sure that the low point was actually inside the atmosphere, and friction took enough energy out of the craft that it never came out of the atmosphere again.

    The company that makes an orbit analysis program created a movie demonstrating the operation. At the end, they showed the Taco Bell target.

  35. Vitis01

    Aren’t all the F-15s grounded right now?

  36. Tom

    Thanks for the very obvious advice.

    As of now, the useful information that Phil offers outweighs the noise for me. As long as it does, I will continue to read.

  37. Leon

    Whoops! Didn’t know that about Skylab, though I probably should have.

  38. hale_bopp

    There was an anti-satellite missle successfully tested by the U.S. that launched from an F-15 in 1985, but the program was cancelled in 1988, so I don’t think the U.S. has a currently functioning anti-satellite weapon (at least an unclassified weapon I should say!) And as someone pointed out, the debris may be more dangerous when it comes down if the satellite is destroyed. Additionally, I imagine some of the debris could end up in a slightly higher orbit and spend a bunch more time up there being a hazard to other space vehicles.

    From everything I have read, the satellite is dead. There is no way for them to control it for a planned deorbit like Mir.

    As to the F-15s, the F15A-D models are being returned to service as they pass inspections. The F-15E model was found not to have the same design flaw and they are all flying.

    Rob

  39. Michael Lonergan

    I’ve heard conflicting reports of which model of the F-15 was grounded. I had read that it was the F-15C, but CNN reported this in November:

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/11/05/f15.grounding/index.html

    Also, there is a video of an Israeli Air Force pilot landing an F-15 after it lost a wing.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=Kk1KBQ96_DI

  40. gopher65

    Aren’t they planning on deorbiting the ISS in 2015? That seems strange to me cause they won’t even be done building it until at least 2010. So they spent more than ONE HUNDRED FREAKING BILLION DOLLARS on something that’s only going to be fully operational for 5 years? Who approved this ****? Do they realize just how many robotic missions we could have had for that much money?

  41. Doug

    The first thing that occured to me was the timing of this and the 2007 TU24 hitting the earth nonsense. Somebody, probably several somebodies, are bound to confuse the two. Or worse yet, link them. I think one of the comments above did so as humor. There may be some who aren’t joking who say that (at least they think they aren’t.

  42. Quiet_Desperation

    Socom, Daffy… get a room, would you?

    as the ISS is not even finished yet, but how are they planning to bring it down, when it’s life is over?

    Well, I think there’s five obvious options:

    1. Boring Option: Careful, controlled deorbit.

    2. Silent Running Option: Attach a booster (or three) to it and send it on its way to… somewhere where it’s not crashing into the Earth.

    3. Demolition Option: Bust it up into smaller chunks (preferable NOT explosively) that will burn up completely.

    4. Democratic Option: We all run around like chicken without heads, screaming wildly about “the children!” and have unprotected end of the world sex as it comes flaming down on our heads.

    5. Republican Option: Pray for the Hand Of God to smite it out of existence

    6. Libertarian Option: Same as #4 but without the running around/screaming part, the end of world sex is paid for and there will be an active Vegas line for wagering on where the ISS finally hits.

  43. Quiet_Desperation

    Six options, even. Der.

  44. n9891q

    Hey Phil – Can you comment on how they bring down the controlled ones? Words like “lumpy” and “non-aerodynamic” and “turbulence galore” come to mind as minor obstacles to overcome, to say nothing of the quality of the atmospheric models at various altitudes. Then there’s ablation and materials properties to consider. Must be almost as hard as calculating orbits, eh? Thanks.

    No political opinions were harmed in the creation of this message.

  45. Daffy

    QD: “Socom, Daffy… get a room, would you?”

    He started it! He started it!

  46. Michael Lonergan

    Quiet, if the Libertarians will pay for it, I’ll take option 6. Oh, wait, I live in Canada. Of course it will be paid for! :)

  47. Davidlpf

    I have a perfect target for the sat to hit as long as the building is empty but knowing my luck it will appear to coming down on target and at the last minute go into the Bay of Fundy a few hundred meters away.

  48. BR

    “Wasn’t one of the original selling points of the space shuttle that we could retrieve dead sattelites?”

    That capability was used only once in the history of the program. Furthermore, such an impromptu mission would have been unheard of even before Columbia. Post-Columbia there’s no room in the launch manifest to push ISS construction back to add another flight, and furthermore too many excessive safety requirements to fly a shuttle to an orbit where it can’t dock with the station.

  49. Chip

    Davidlpf wrote:
    “I have a perfect target for the sat to hit …knowing my luck it will appear …coming down on target and at the last minute go into the Bay of Fundy a few hundred meters away.”

    I take it you live here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:BayofFundy.JPG
    and you want it to knock out that empty light green storage shed you’ve been meaning to tear down? ;-)

  50. I guess the plan is to de-orbit the ISS in 2016. If there is money to keep it going, they could extend it’s mission, according to this info:

    http://images.spaceref.com/news/2007/2007.05.iss.lab.report.pdf

  51. I remember when Skylab crashed down on Australia. I assume that when the ISS’s time comes, it will end up doing something similar.

  52. At least the paranoids will have a reason to take off their tin foil hats for a little bit.

  53. Impium Orexis

    I’m shocked that no one has suggested that this “satellite” is, in fact, TU24 itself, and the whole spy satellite story is just a cover for the Planet X aliens aboard TU24.

  54. Well I highly doubt it will hit anything and even if it does, whose ever property it hits will likely make a lot more on selling the debris on eBay than the value of any damage. That is… as long as nobody gets killed… that’s even less likely though. Actually it’s astronomically unlikely.

    Look at the bright side: If the satellite is shot and can’t be controlled or used for anything then it’s better it deorbits than have another piece of space junk. Even worse would be if it somehow broke up or parts broke off and stayed in orbit.

    Burning up is better in the long term either way. Too bad it didn’t last longer though.

  55. Ken

    Hey Phil, do you think that the scientific method can be applied to studying psychology? That is, if there was research which specifically proved via the scientific method that bringing up politics whilst discussing facts inhibits a person’s ability to digest the facts properly, would you listen to it?

  56. Michael Lonergan

    I’m not really sure why everyone is upset over BA’s political comments. The way I look at it, a person that writes a blog is inviting you into their house, so to speak. If you accept the invitation, you follow their rules. If you don’t like it, excuse yourself, and come back later. If I invited someone into my home, I would not appreciate it if they behaved like a pig. We should be able to respect each other despite whatever differences of opinion we may have with each other. Cursing and swearing just makes you look like an immature brat.

  57. Davidlpf

    @Chip
    No I do not live there but my workplace is in St. Andrews NB which is on the Bay of Fundy.

  58. antaresrichard

    “Hurry! Perhaps we still have time to send Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner up there. They’ll solve the problem.”

    Hah, forget those guys! Somebody get a hold of actress Beverly Garland! No doubt, Venusian interlopers “It” and possibly “Zontar” are determined to reconquer the world! (Well, Bronson Caverns at least.)

  59. Michael Lonergan

    Couldn’t we just send Richard Hoagland and Kent Hovind along with Tom Cruise?

  60. wotthe7734

    @Michael Lonergan – Only if it’s a one-way trip. :-)

    Are there enough seats for Ken Ham and Bill Dembski too?

  61. Michael Lonergan

    @wotthe7734 They can ride in the back

  62. Mike Lonergan posts:

    [[Quiet, if the Libertarians will pay for it, I’ll take option 6. Oh, wait, I live in Canada. Of course it will be paid for!]]

    Mike, if you can’t get it unless you pay for it, you might as well hang it up.

  63. Matt

    I live in the upper Midwest. There is no concern here for the satellite landing downtown in any of our cities, since they are all abandoned.

    Did anyone see the special on “what happens after humans” on the History Channel? They went to Chernobyl to provide a real world example– what a waste when you could have just travelled to Detroit or Benton Harbor.

  64. Michael Lonergan

    Barton, Ooooooooo……. I’m speechless for once

  65. Quiet_Desperation

    7. Objectivist Option: Do nothing. If the satellite hits you, you morally deserved it.
    :-)

  66. QD has an important point to make. It’s the interference of the state with the free market that makes 2007 TU24 so dangerous. Why not give everyone a tax cut dependent on safe passage of the asteroid? Then people will have more incentive not to be hit by it.

  67. Edward Carney

    “the odds of hitting land are 30% at best.”

    Isn’t it more correct to say that the odds against a random piece of debris striking land is .7/.3 or 2.33 to 1 against? That is, the favorable outcome is 2.33 times more probable than the unfavorable outcome. This is a little clearer if we try to guess the day that it will come down. If the day of the satellite’s final re-entry is a random variable, then the probability of the day being Sunday is 1/7. The odds that it will be a Sunday are 6 to 1 against.

    I’m sure that things get much more complicated with the field of debris produced by a falling satellite, especially given the various kinds of material, some of high density, some of low. Another issue is that the satellite is out of control, but the orbit when launched might have been set up to optimize fuel use by launching the satellite to track mostly over land or mostly over ocean, depending on the desired targets.

  68. Doc

    8. Average American Citizen Option: Huh? Satellite? Will I still be able to hear about Brittany?

  69. Totenhawk

    Ice Station Zebra .

    If this Spysat does land in north America , Get ready to meet your friendly local SEAL recovery team.
    The classified nature of this bird is Top Secret at the least.

  70. Brie

    Does anyone know when this is suppose to happen???

  71. Pete from Australia

    [...] a Soviet satellite came down in Australia a few years ago.

    You might be thinking of SkyLab, an early US space station. Chunks of it fell around various farms and small country towns in Western Australia.

  72. icemith

    Did it happen? And when? Or are we still waiting for the report?

    Maybe it DID land/splash-down and nobody noticed!

    Ivan.

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