US predicts 30-minute warning for satellite crash landing

by twit

LATEST UPDATE: Feb. 20, 2008: Lestro reports on new information about the plans to shoot the satellite down, including video of the satellite being shot down.

UPDATE: Via Reuters on Feb 15, 2008:

Ambassador Christina Rocca said that if efforts fail to strike the satellite with a missile while it is still in space, it was expected to make an “uncontrolled re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere on or about March 6”.

UPDATE: From MSNBC on Feb 14, 2008:

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon, under orders from President Bush, is planning to shoot down a broken spy satellite expected to hit the Earth in early March, the White House said Thursday.

U.S. officials said that the option preferred by the administration will be to fire a missile from a U.S. Navy cruiser, and shoot down the satellite before it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

… The military will have to choose a time and a location that will avoid to the greatest degree any damage to other satellites in the sky. Also, there is the possibility that large pieces could remain, and either stay in orbit where they can collide with other satellites or possibly fall to Earth.

… officials won’t have much detail on where or when it will crash until it begins to move through the atmosphere and break up.

Basically, if you see something like this in the sky during early March:
(image via Newsvine)

You have about a half-hour to take cover.

Whether effective cover would be available if the US can’t destroy the fuel tank in advance of the crash seems like a reasonable question, at least based on this report from Boing Boing on Feb 14, 2008:

It contains 1,000 pounds of hydrazine fuel, which “could turn into a toxic gas capable of causing deaths and injuries if it crashed in a populated area.”

Jan 29, 2008:

Will cities prepare for mass evacuation as an out-of-control satellite approaches North America for an uncontrolled crash landing? MSNBC, the BBC, TIME and Wired report on the latest developments and the debate over whether or not to panic.

From what I understand, we don’t exactly know how big it is, or where exactly it is coming down. What we do seem to know is that by the time we can figure out where it will strike, there will be 30 minutes left to respond. We’ll be trying to shoot it down if necessary, but we’re not exactly ready with anything specifically designed to shoot down space debris.

Highlights from recent MSNBC coverage include:

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.

FEMA’s involvement seems like enough cause for alarm, but then I read this:

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.

so much for the earlier info about being able to shoot it down.

The U.S. military has no weapon designed to shoot down a satellite, but it demonstrated the ability to do that in the mid-1980s, and could cobble together a plan to do so again fairly quickly, said the senior defense official.

does “fairly quickly” include a thirty minute timeframe?

my other question has to do with how quickly this flaming debris might arrive, which is a question for math genies, apparently:

Today’s coverage from MSNBC mentions:

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.

Yesterday’s MSNBC coverage offers this combo:

the satellite has fallen more than 43 miles (70 kilometers) to an orbit at around 174 miles (280 kilometers) above Earth. U.S. and European astronomers estimate it is dropping at an accelerating rate of 5 miles (8 kilometers) a day.

unless I’m misunderstanding all this, which I am perfectly and happily willing to accept.

Wired suggests we not panic and that “the chances of there being any danger to people is pretty darn minuscule.” But then they do point this out, speaking of the questions for math genies:

We can all be assured that the amateur observers will be tracking this object over the rest of its orbital life and providing the best indicators (and analysis) of when and where it might re-enter. The really sad part of this story is that the US government is withholding information on a potentially dangerous object in the name of national security, but that same information is readily available to anyone with a telescope, a trained mind, and a starry night to collect for themselves.


One of those satellites may be visible to folks in New York City on Friday.”

From the New York Times on Feb 5, 2008:

In the case of the mysterious satellite that is about to plunge back to earth, Mr. Molczan had an early sense of which one it was, identifying it as USA-193, which gave out shortly after reaching space in December 2006. It is said to have been built by the Lockheed Martin Corporation and operated by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office.

… the spotters are also pursuing a thoroughly unusual pastime, one that calls for long hours outside, freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer, straining to see a moving light in the sky and hoping that a slip of the finger on the stopwatch does not delete an entire night’s work. And for the adept, there is math. Lots of math.

From the New York Times Lede Blog on Feb 5, 2008:

USA 193 is predicted to pass across the twilight sky on a northwest-to-southeast trajectory between 6:07 a.m. and 6:11 a.m. Eastern time. Stargazers may take note that it will appear to rapidly skim just below the stars of the Big Dipper during its pass. At the midpoint of the pass (6:09 a.m.) it will appear almost directly overhead.

At its closest point to New York observers, USA 193 will be about 170 miles away.


From the Associated Press via the Washington Post on Feb 8, 2008:

A dead U.S. spy satellite in a deteriorating orbit is expected to hit the Earth the first week of March, officials said yesterday.

It is not known where the satellite will hit. But officials familiar with the situation say about half of the 5,000-pound spacecraft is expected to survive its blazing descent through the atmosphere and will scatter debris — some of it potentially hazardous — over several hundred miles. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The satellite is outfitted with thrusters, small engines used to position it in space, that contain the toxic rocket fuel hydrazine. It can cause harm to anyone who comes into contact with it.

and in other news:

… UK bookmakers last night placed the odds of being struck by this US spy satellite at at least 20 billion to one.

… Mr Pike also said it is 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.

4 Responses to US predicts 30-minute warning for satellite crash landing

  1. lestro says:

    FEMA? what, was Bruce Willis busy?

  2. philip says:

    wow tht is amazing

  3. Pingback: the “new” problem of nuclear space trash « The Church of the Apocalyptic Kiwi

  4. Pingback: It’s raining flaming debris « The Church of the Apocalyptic Kiwi

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