Tuesday, January 29, 2008

American spy sat out of control and returning to Earth - Update

An aerial view shows the Delta II lifting off at Vandenberg Air Force Base of NROL 21. Photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Freeland, USAF.

Here is the story on a failed US Milsat dominating the news coverage this morning courtesy of the UK Daily Mail - link at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=510674&in_page_id=1811

A 10-ton American spy satellite has lost power and could hit the Earth in the next few weeks, government officials said today.

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.

An uncontrolled re-entry could risk exposure of U.S. 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 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.

Pike, director of the defense research group GlobalSecurity.org, estimated that the spacecraft weighs about 10 tons and was 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 is 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 (79.25-metric 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 (17.27-metric 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 (3175.18-kilogram) 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.

Milcom Blog Note: The Milcom Monitoring Post is working towards IDing which NRO recon bird this is. Some on the Seesat newsgroup think this milsat may be USA 193 (NROL 21) - 2006-056C - 29651, launched on December 16, 2006, at 2100 UTC onboard a Delta 2 (Delta 7920-10C) from the Western Test Range Vandenberg (SLC-2W). The orbit observed soon after launch (380 km x 353 km, 58.5 degress inclination) fits the profile that this may have been an experimental radar recon satellite mission manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

Soon after launch my good friend John Locker in the UK reported that this satellite failed within hours of its launch and the solar arrays never deployed. On January 22, 2008, the Dean of Visual Satellite observers - Mr. Ted Molczan - made the following post to the Seesat newsgroup:->

Using Alan Pickup's Satevo program, I estimate 06057A (aka USA 193) will decay about 2008 Mar24, +/- 2 weeks.

USA 193 5.0 2.5 0.0 4.3 v
1 29651U 06057A 08022.26928906 .00106843 00000-0 21608-3 0 00
2 29651 58.4898 160.3690 0008009 84.4119 275.7892 15.98955224 06
Arc 2008 Jan 20.22 - 22.28, WRMS residuals = 0.016 deg

The evidence would strongly indicate that USA 193 is the failed mission described in press reports.

My original story on USA 193/NROL 21 failure can be found at
http://mt-milcom.blogspot.com/2007/01/expensive-new-us-spy-satellite.html and the link at http://mt-milcom.blogspot.com/2006/12/nrol-21-launched.html is my initial report on the launch.

The link below is the launch release on USA 193/NROL-21 from the Aerospace Corp website.

Marco Langbroek has posted a small diagram showing how USA 193 is increasingly losing altitude over time the past year on his blog at http://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/2008/01/usa-193-imminent-decay-in-news.html