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.
A U.S. official confirmed that the spy satellite is designated by the military as US 193 (Actually that is an error - it is USA 193-LVH). 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.
The US media has been a dissappointment in reporting this story. For instance, this morning the Fox News Fox and Friends anchors were wearing hardhats during their reporting of this story and basically had most the story completely wrong. Fortunately their guest, a former NASA astronaut, set the record straight.
On the latest JSR Stop Press (http://www.planet4589.org/space/jsr/latest.html), Jonathan reports the following:
"The NRO's experimental USA 193 surveillance satellite, which was reported to be crippled soon after its launch on a Delta II in Dec 2006 into a 351 x 365 km x 58 deg orbit, is approaching reentry. Orbital data from independent observers show that the satellite's trajectory has slowly decayed since launch due to friction with the atmosphere; by Jan 22 it was in a 275 x 279 km x 58 deg orbit dropping about 1 km a day, and the decrease in height will soon accelerate catastrophically. The satellite is thought to have been intended to test prototype instruments for future spy satellites, possibly including a radar sensor; it was reportedly developed by Lockheed Martin (LM-Sunnyvale has experience in recon satellites, but LM-Denver is involved in the Space Radar area; both groups could be involved). Reports of 'dangerous material' on board the satellite may refer to hydrazine orbit adjust propellant; mass of the spacecraft is probably around 2000 to 3000 kg. It's fairly rare for satellite payloads of this mass to have an uncontrolled reentry -only one or two a year - but empty rocket stages as heavy as this come down about once every three weeks, so the media attention accorded this particular event seems over enthusiastic to me.
On the SEESAT-L newsgroup, the dean of the visual satellite trackers Ted Molzcan wrote:
"Aviation Week and Space Technology has reported on a classified satellite which entered safe-hold mode just 7 seconds after reaching orbit, and never came out of safe-hold; I suspect this was in reference to USA 193:
"Entry into safe-hold so soon after reaching orbit may have precluded deployment of the solar-panels. Perhaps they generated some power in their stowed position, but insufficient to maintain the charge on the batteries.
"The late Ivan Artner and other radio monitors heard it transmit a strong signal on 2249.5 MHz for about 1.5 days after launch, after which it fell silent. On his final reception, Ivan experienced three signal dropouts of several millisecond duration, which may have been a sign of trouble with the transmitter or the power supply. All this seems consistent with failure to deploy solar
panels, and subsequent rapid battery run-down."
Another good story on USA 193 can be found on the SatTrackCam Leiden station (b)log at
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. My story of USA 193 returning to earth appeared at http://mt-milcom.blogspot.com/2008/01/american-spy-sat-size-of-bus-is-out-of.html
Milcom blog fact check: In the past 50 years of monitoring space, 17,000 manmade objects have re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.