U.S. spy satellite declared loss, to drop from orbit

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

The National Reconnaissance Office has deemed an experimental U.S. spy satellite a total loss and will allow it to slowly drop from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, two defense officials told Reuters this week.

The classified L-21, built by Lockheed Martin Corp at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, was launched on December 14 but has been out of touch since reaching its low-earth orbit, put by satellite watchers at about 220 miles above the earth.

It will now gradually fall out of orbit over the coming decades, said the officials, who asked not to be named. At some later date, it will burn up as it enters the earth’s atmosphere, posing no danger to people below, they said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon will likely now have to test aspects of new technologies that were on the L-21 by piggybacking them onto other satellites over the next four to five years, the officials said.

For instance, the military could put the new sensors aboard TacSat 3, the latest in a series of smaller satellites, when it launches later this year.

The NRO could still try to build a new spacecraft to test the technology, but it would take several years to get the funding for such a satellite and build it, one official said.

The two officials declined to identify what exactly the experimental Lockheed satellite was meant to test, but said its failure was troubling, given that other countries were rapidly plowing ahead with development and launch of new capabilities, especially in the area of synthetic aperture radars.

Synthetic aperture radars offer high-resolution and can pierce darkness and thick clouds to identify targets, even peering below the surface of the ground or peeking into foliage that might obstruct the view of photo-based sensors.