Under the Microscope: U.S. Spy Satellite may fall out of orbit

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February 5, 2008

12:20 PM

A United States spy satellite has lost power and could hit the Earth in late February or early March.

p. Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified information concerning the satellite, have stated that the satellite can no longer be controlled and may contain hazardous materials. Its exact landing point has not been determined.

p. “Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation. 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,” Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an Associated Press interview.

p. One of the biggest concerns with the satellite is the potential exposure of U.S. intelligence secrets. John Pike, a defense and intelligence expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org, stated that spy satellites are usually disposed of in the ocean so that no one can access the satellite after it re-enters.

p. The rocket fuel, hydrazine, is also a concern for officials because of its toxic nature. A large amount of fuel may remain because the satellite was not in a controlled orbit for long.

p. Pike believes that it is unlikely the fuel is radioactive but stated that it could contain toxins such as beryllium, which could be harmful to humans and animals if they are exposed.

p. According to Jeffery Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, the satellite is likely a photo reconnaissance satellite that spies on enemy governments, terror groups, nuclear sites and militant training camps. It is also used to survey damage from natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

p. A New York Times article cited specialists as having reason to believe that the satellite is an experimental image device by Lockheed Martin and was launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California in Dec. 2006.

p. In 1979, the 78-ton space station Skylab plummeted into a remote section of the Indian Ocean near western Australia. It is the largest uncontrolled re-entry of a NASA spacecraft to date.

p. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, stated that it is fairly common for satellites to drop out of orbit and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere; he suggested that any debris remaining after the fiery descent generally lands on remote parts of the planet.

p. The first U.S. spy satellite was ordered on Mar. 16, 1955, to spy on countries that may threaten to wage war on the United States. Spy satellites are generally used for missions such as taking high-resolution photographs, communications eavesdropping, covert communication, enforcement of nuclear test bans and detection of missile launches.

p. Information gained from spy satellite missions is classified; the majority of available information from these missions exists from those conducted prior to 1972. Some photographs have been declassified or leaked — such is the case of a KH-11 photograph of a shipyard in the Black Sea that was leaked to Jane’s Defence Weekly in 1985.

p. As of Jan. 22, the satellite, which Pike speculated to be around the size of a small bus, is in a circular orbit about 275 kilometers above Earth. McDowell stated that this orbit is rapidly decaying and it is only a matter of weeks before the satellite falls completely out of orbit and begins descending toward Earth.

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