(elements of this story have been manipulated and/or fabricated)
U.S. downplays threat from falling satellite
Spacecraft would likely break up, but it will be monitored, officials say
U.S. loses control of spy satelliteJan. 28: A U.S. intelligence agency loses control of a spy satellite after it loses power. NBC's Tom Costello has the details.
WASHINGTON - A disabled U.S. spy satellite is likely to break into smaller pieces when it falls to Earth within days, U.S. government officials said Monday.
Most debris that survives the intense heat of re-entry would likely fall into the oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet, White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. But he said the U.S. government was monitoring the satellite’s descent from orbit and examining different options to “mitigate any damage.”
"What the hell does that mean?" asked SFFSS President Rick Larsen at a recent rally in Washington. "Why are they trying to sugar-coat it and keep the public in the dark regarding the dangers of a worst-case scenario?"
The U.S. military could potentially use a missile to destroy the satellite in space, but one senior U.S. defense official told Reuters that was unlikely for several reasons, including concern about creating space debris, as China did when it shot down one of its satellites last year.
“Given that 75 percent of the Earth is covered in water and much of the land is uninhabited, the likely percentage of this satellite or any debris falling into a populated area is about one in four,” Johndroe said. "And since that represents 25%, and since we are three-fourths water, that's how we came by that figure."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said "more than 17,000 human-made objects have re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the past 50 years without too many major incidents, except for skylab and Mir, the former Soviet space observatory, and a 'handful' of other incidents involving citizens or their property."
“We are monitoring it ... we take our obligations seriously with respect to the use of space,” Whitman said, noting the satellite was expected to "return to Earth hard and fast in the remote western Pacific Ocean.”
"That is absolute bullshit," said Larsen, whose home near Phoenix, AZ was destroyed in 2002. "They have no fucking idea of when or where."
Never became operational
The satellite is a classified National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2006, four senior U.S. officials who asked not to be named told Reuters.
"The reason they're asking not to be named," said Rick Larsen, "is because they're trying to sugar-coat it. They're not telling people how big that motherfucker is, and they have absolutely no idea of where it's going to hit. It's inoperable. Do you know what that means?"
The satellite, known as L-21, has been 'out of touch' since shortly after reaching its low-Earth orbit. Built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, 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.
Because the satellite never became operational, it has toxic rocket fuel on board that would have been used to maneuver the satellite in space. It could pose a danger if the fuel tank does not explode upon re-entry, and if the debris should shower a metropolitan area.
Thousands of space objects fall to Earth each year, but they generally scatter over a huge area, two U.S. officials said.
Occasionally, bigger objects survive, including a 563-pound (255-kilogram) stainless-steel fuel tank from a Delta 2 rocket that landed 50 yards (meters) from a farmer’s home in Texas in 1997, and Skylab, which impacted a home in western Australia.
Click for related content
A spy satellite’s rise ... and fall
U.S. plans next-gen spy satellite program
Missing: One Russian spy satellite
What You Don't Know: How big it is
Much Scarier Than Earlier Anticipated
This L-21 satellite is much larger, and less likely to fully burn up as it enters the atmosphere, scientists said, "but our science isn't exact," they added.
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.
"What that means, said Larsen, disputing the claim, "is that they have the shit already."
Such a move appears unlikely, given global dismay about China’s use of a missile to destroy a much bigger satellite at a higher orbit, which scattered nearly 1,000 pieces of debris throughout space, the official said.
Not the first time
The largest uncontrolled re-entry by a NASA spacecraft was Skylab, the 78-ton abandoned space station that fell from orbit in 1979. Its debris scattered across a remote section of western Australia.
In 2000, NASA engineers successfully directed a safe de-orbit of the 17-ton Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, using rockets aboard the satellite to bring it down in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, striking the Bass Islands in French Polynesia.
In 2002, officials believe debris from a 3.5-ton science satellite smacked into Earth's atmosphere and rained down over the Persian Gulf, a few thousand miles from where they first predicted it would plummet.
"It's anybody's guess," said a space administration official. "a keep your fingers crossed kind of a thing. I'm not going to sugar-coat it. It's always iffy. It could be a disaster of unparalleled proportions if that fuel tank doesn't burn up. If that happens, we could be up shit creek."
This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press.