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Broken U.S. spy satellite falling out of orbit

January 27, 2008|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senior government officials said Saturday that they were closely watching a failing U.S. spy satellite that had begun the process of "de-orbiting" and cautioned that the large device was no longer controllable and could hit the Earth as early as late February.

"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 this satellite may cause."

U.S. officials are unable to maneuver the satellite, and Johndroe declined to say whether it would be possible to shoot down the spy apparatus before it plummets to Earth. He would not divulge further specifics.

At the Pentagon, Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Finn confirmed that Defense officials thought the satellite could hit the Earth soon but that more analysis would be needed to better determine when, where and in what condition the satellite might crash.

"We are monitoring it," she said. "The NSC has been talking to us about this, and they confirm it is a de-orbiting satellite."

White House officials had little more to say about the situation beyond what the Pentagon and the National Security Council disclosed.

The Associated Press, citing unnamed sources, hinted that the satellite could contain hazardous materials, but the sources were not certain.

Nevertheless, administration officials took the precaution of notifying U.S. lawmakers and other nations, and pledged to keep them aware of the situation as the satellite's failure nears.

Many commercial satellites contain small rockets that ground controllers use to adjust their orbits, and solar panels and rechargeable batteries for power.

Batteries in solar power systems usually are considered hazardous for disposal purposes.

Satellites launched toward planets farther from the sun more often rely on nuclear power.

Some early U.S. and Russian satellites orbiting Earth also used nuclear power, and several accidents over the years resulted in releases of radioactive material.

The contents and operation of U.S. military and spy satellites are classified.

The most significant uncontrolled re-entry by a U.S. craft was Skylab in 1979. Debris from the 78-ton abandoned space station fell into the Indian Ocean and over remote areas of Australia.

In 2000, NASA engineers used rockets aboard the 17-ton Compton Gamma Ray Observatory to bring the satellite down in the Pacific Ocean. And in 2002, officials think debris from a 7,000-pound science satellite fell into the Persian Gulf.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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