US warns out-of-control spy satellite is falling

Paul Harris

A large American spy satellite is expected to fall to Earth some time in the next month, officials said yesterday.

It is unclear where the space debris might come down, but it could hit ground in late February or March. It is also not known whether the satellite could contain potentially hazardous materials, such as a nuclear-powered reactor.

Officials said they had lost control over the satellite and had informed countries around the world about the potential problem. ‘Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the threat … we are looking at potential options to mitigate any damage this satellite may cause,’ National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told the AP news agency.

Johndroe declined to say whether such measures could include shooting down the satellite with a missile.

China recently conducted such an operation by destroying one of its own satellites from Earth to test a space missile system. However, that move created a cloud of fragments and other satellites had to be manoeuvred into new orbits to avoid being hit by the debris.

Other satellites have fallen to earth harmlessly before. In 2002 parts of a science satellite rained down over the Persian Gulf. The largest re-entry took place when Skylab, a 78-ton abandoned space laboratory belonging to Nasa, fell from orbit in 1979. It came down in a fiery mass of debris that fell mainly into the Indian Ocean and onto Australia.

No one was harmed in what was a media sensation. One San Francisco newspaper offered a reward for anyone who brought a piece of Skylab to its newsroom. The $10,000 prize was collected by a young Western Australian man who found a piece of it on his roof in the small town of Esperance and travelled to America with it.

In 2000 Nasa engineers brought down a much smaller satellite into a distant part of the Pacific Ocean. That is likely to not be possible in this case as the object has lost all power and propulsion. This makes it impossible to dictate where or when the satellite will come down – or if it will just burn up in the atmosphere.

One of the most disturbing examples of space pollution occurred in a type of Soviet satellite launched from 1967 to 1988. The Rorsat-class reconnaissance satellites contained a nuclear reactor as a power source. It was later shown that 16 of 31 Rorsats had been leaking potentially radioactive coolant into space, creating a trail of droplets in orbit.