Defunct spy satellite falling from orbit, could hit Earth in late Feb. or March

Sunday, January 27, 2008

WASHINGTON -- A large U.S. spy satellite has lost power and propulsion and could hit the Earth in late February or early March, government officials said Saturday.

The satellite, which no longer can be controlled, could contain hazardous materials, and it is unknown where it might come down, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified as secret.

"Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "Numerous satellites over the years have come out of orbit and fallen harmlessly. We are looking at potential options to mitigate any possible damage."

A senior government official said that lawmakers and other nations are being kept apprised of the situation.

The spacecraft contains hydrazine, a rocket fuel, according to a government official who was not authorized to speak publicly but spoke on condition of anonymity. Hydrazine is toxic and can cause harm to anyone who comes into contact with it.

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 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 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 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.

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