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Defunct Spy Satellite Falling From Orbit

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the cue-the-chicken-little-jokes dept.

Space 312

dnormant, among other readers, sent us word that a US spy satellite has lost power and propulsion and could hit the Earth in late February or March. Government officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified as secret. None of the coverage speculates on how big the satellite is, but Wikipedia claims that US spy satellites in the KH-11 class, launched up to the mid-90s, are about the size of the Hubble — which is 13 meters long and weighs over 11,000 kg. "The satellite, which no longer can be controlled, could contain hazardous materials, and it is unknown where on the planet it might come down... A senior government official said that lawmakers and other nations are being kept apprised of the situation."

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312 comments

The size of the Hubble? (4, Funny)

oakbox (414095) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196574)

Those stories about telling what brand of cigarettes a person was smoking from space seem a lot more plausible.

Jesus... (5, Interesting)

SpectreBlofeld (886224) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196594)

No joke. I had no idea they were that massive.

Do they use solar panels for power? Seems to me that they'd want to keep as low a profile as possible, which would eliminate the large profile created by solar panels.

Which leaves radioisotope thermoelectric generation as the power source - which would mean there's plutonium (or another highly radioactive material) in these things.

Yikes...

Re:Jesus... (4, Interesting)

funwithBSD (245349) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196638)

You don't need anything that exotic, the thruster fuel, hydrazine, is dangerous enough:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrazine [wikipedia.org]

Re:Jesus... (4, Funny)

ivan256 (17499) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197012)

Which is presumably what this thing has run out of...

Re:Jesus... (3, Funny)

kcbanner (929309) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197272)

Naw, its flux capacitor probably just ran dry. Couldn't sustain 88mph any longer :/

Oh please (4, Interesting)

ArchieBunker (132337) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196688)

You think nobody thought of this scenario before shooting a billion dollar satellite into space? Look what happened a number of years ago in Florida when a rocket carrying a communications satellite exploded before it left the atmosphere. http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9808/27/rocket.blast2/index.html [cnn.com]

Re:Jesus... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196736)

Why keep a so-called "low profile"? What does that even mean for an object in a mathematically defined movement, made of metal, against the (essentially) empty radar background of space?

It's not as if it's hard for the Russians/Chinese/etc to figure out where our satellites are. That's why the SR-71 was considered so valuable for so long - you didn't know days in advance when one was going to show up.

Re:Jesus... (1, Redundant)

Deadstick (535032) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196768)

Seems to me that they'd want to keep as low a profile as possible, which would eliminate the large profile

Ummm, why? Are you under the impression an artificial satellite can hide from radars and telescopes?

rj

Re:Jesus... (1)

sumdumass (711423) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196984)

I think what he is saying is that they cannot hide. Or hide forever. The enemy could plot courses and trajectories and hide anything really sensative when the satellite passed over. The SR71 on the other hand, it just showed up with little notice.

Re:Jesus... (1)

Tailsfan (1200615) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196816)

MAybe that is the "hazardous material"

Hazardous Material (4, Funny)

camperdave (969942) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196938)

It's the contents of the onboard hard drive that are the hazardous materials. If certain folks find you in possession of that data, well, lets say Gitmo would be a holiday.

Re:Hazardous Material (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197062)

You don't put hard drives into space, generally speaking. Flash RAM, maybe, but they don't exactly retrieve the pictures this thing takes off of the photo album on its onboard web server. I think they're talking about secrets of their construction, but this isn't exactly the latest-gen satellite, and through espionage or independent research, the secrets from it are probably already known to anyone with the technology to launch one. Did I mention that they're heavy -- there's not many countries with the tech to launch something that big.

There's maybe some interesting signal intelligence stuff on it, but I can't imagine any software surviving.

Re:Jesus... (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196856)

Posting as AC for NDA reasons.

It's common knowledge in NASA that lots of US satellites are nuclear powered. It's actually not that dangerous, if it blows in re-entry it will go over a big enough area to just fade into the background radiation, and if it comes down in one piece they can go gather it up. However, people are so worried about such things they would never admit it. This "may contain dangerous materials" is the closest you'll ever get to an admission.

ATTN: Mike Williams aka "Anonymous Coward" (4, Funny)

Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197222)

We know who you are. Do not attempt to leave your house, turn off your computer, or unplug your microwave. We will be there shortly to bring you into custody.

Re:ATTN: Mike Williams aka "Anonymous Coward" (4, Funny)

Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197242)

Also Note, We have hacked into Bill's brain to access his login credentials.

.... and disabled his ability to either check the "Post Anonymously" Check box, or hit the "Preview" Button.

Re:Jesus... (1)

GumphMaster (772693) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197250)

It's actually not that dangerous, if it blows in re-entry it will go over a big enough area to just fade into the background radiation, and if it comes down in one piece they can go gather it up.

Like they gathered up the radioisotope thermal generator [wikipedia.org] from Apollo 13's Aquarius lunar lander [wikipedia.org] (currently in the Tonga Trench)? Or perhaps like the Russion Mars 96 probes RTGs that are somewhere in Chile.

Re:Jesus... (1)

no-body (127863) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196868)

Oh, don't worry - there is only some beryllium which evaporates and it's much lighter than the "Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003" - 10 times less trash.
Nevertheless, apparently, those were hydrazine propellant driven satellites.
Interesting site:
http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/systems/kh-11.htm [globalsecurity.org]

SOME beryllium? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197138)

Just how big a Beryllium Sphere does this object have anyways?

Re:Jesus... (1)

delvsional (745684) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197052)

What? You never watched GI Jane? I believe they were going in after 12 lbs of weapons grade naquadah uh, I mean uranium.

Re:Jesus... (1)

SueAnnSueAnn (998877) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197264)

Yah big puppy...
I am going to grab it and snatch the camera and transponder and communications equipment when it lands.

Some of a friend's handywork in that.

Re:Jesus... (1)

Frosty Piss (770223) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197274)

Seems to me that they'd want to keep as low a profile as possible, which would eliminate the large profile created by solar panels.
Both "them" and "us" know how many and where in the sky these things are. They are hard to hide. Now, details of exactly what quality of intel they provide, that would be the Double Super Secret Top Secret on both sides.

Re:The size of the Hubble? (5, Interesting)

BWJones (18351) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196642)

Physics essentially defines how big an object is that can be resolved from space which is (until recently) about 10cm optimal given the best altitude, angle of the sun and angle of captured image with perfect atmospheric conditions. Currently most satellite in orbit are using standard optics. However, using a newer technology called adaptive optics, images can be obtained that allow for much higher resolution. Some examples of ground based adaptive optics imaging of satellites can be seen here [utah.edu] , but space based adaptive optics work is an area of very active interest in a variety of fields from science to intelligence.

Re:The size of the Hubble? (1)

jpellino (202698) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197170)

I seem to recall the Hubble could resolve something the size of a dime at 300 miles - sound right?

Size: more like a 10ton 'Small Bus' (4, Funny)

theNAM666 (179776) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196772)

From Yahoo! [yahoo.com]

Pike, director of the defense research group GlobalSecurity.org, estimated that the spacecraft weighs about 20,000 pounds and is the size of a small bus. He said the satellite would create 10 times less debris than the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003.

Now, um, how did the darn thing "loose power?..." Bet that's a secret...

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.

Anyone wanna take bets on this one hitting Iran?

Re:Size: more like a 10ton 'Small Bus' (4, Funny)

nacturation (646836) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196794)

Now, um, how did the darn thing "loose power?..." Bet that's a secret...
No kidding. You'd think with the government always trying to tighten power that you'd never see them do the opposite and loosen up power.
 

Yes, the size of the Hubble (1)

IvyKing (732111) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196872)

I've heard from a couple of different sources that the Hubble is pretty much a modified KH-11. While the resolution is pretty good, they can tell the difference between say a 90 inch diameter missile and 100 inch diameter missile, I doubt that they can tell the brand of cigarette.

Re:Yes, the size of the Hubble (1)

sumdumass (711423) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197054)

The packs are or used to be marked pretty distincly with different colors and all. just seeing the packs would probably be enouhg to know the brands even if they couldn't read the words.

Back in the 90's the MS terraserve project was putting full resolution images online. Well, a school that was built on old Airforce property that was given to the city under the condition that it would only be a park had some chemicals leaking into the basement. Of course it was a hasmat situation and all and I was using the teraserve or whatever it is called to see the structures outlines for possible building locations and stuff. Of course the images where too new to have any airforce stuff on it but I could see a trucking yard of to the side. I zoomed in and was able to read then name and DOT numbers on the side of the trucks.

About a year after that, I heard some news about the government being concerned over sat images being posted on the internet and how the detail was giving secretes back. I rechecked the MS images I saw earlier and they wouldn't zoom in near as mcuh as they did. The truck and trailers I was looking at numbers on wouldn't soom in small enough to fill mor ethen half the screen.

I wouldn't surprise me if they couldn't read the headlines of newspapers.

Re:Yes, the size of the Hubble (1)

DAldredge (2353) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197280)

Those were pictures taken from an airplane.

Re:Yes, the size of the Hubble (1)

tgd (2822) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197102)

Yup, thats pretty widely claimed in print, and I've seen it published with sources that struck me as pretty reliable.

Re:The size of the Hubble? (1)

Linuxmonger (921470) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196980)

Silly, you can't smoke cigarettes in space! There isn't enough oxygen.

why do we care (1)

cyphercell (843398) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196584)

is this going to contribute to space junk, hit my house, or just burn up on the way in?

Re:why do we care (1)

knitterb (103829) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196646)

I was going to ask the same question. Why would this not burn up as it hit and passed through the atmosphere just like anything else would. If a rock would burn up on reentry, why not a hunk of metal?

Re:why do we care (1)

cyphercell (843398) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196678)

After reading the article, I guess a good chunk of it will pass through, but historically these things tend to land in the ocean. There also might be some toxic materials on there but they can't comment. I think it's more about letting people know before it happens rather than letting people find out they didn't tell anyone.

Re:why do we care (5, Informative)

Deadstick (535032) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196914)

historically these things tend to land in the ocean

Hardly surprising, since "in the ocean" means 80% of the Earth's surface...

To put this in perspective, consider that over thirty thousand meteorites have been found on the ground. There's one in Oregon that weighs sixteen tons; the rate of impacts, found and unfound, has been estimated at 500 per day worldwide.

Know anybody who's been hit?

Actually, a few people -- a very few -- have. The surface of the Earth is a big place, and not a very big fraction of it is covered by people.

rj

Re:why do we care (1)

cyphercell (843398) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197116)

that was essentially the source of my flippant attitude without reading the article, though some AC said there was someone hit by Sky-Lab, according to the article that would have been in australia in 1979 http://www.google.com/search?&q=skylab+australia+1979+deaths/ [google.com] , I'm reading right now, but found no short descriptions in the top ten that matched what I was looking for. I do think compensation for this sort of thing is in order.

Re:why do we care (2, Informative)

PachmanP (881352) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197224)

If a rock would burn up on reentry, why not a hunk of metal?

It's a function of things like the heat of ablation, suface area and mass relationships, and where in the spacecraft the object begins.
Rocks like to break up into lots of little things with reasonable heating areas and masses; satellites not so much. Ti bolts don't like to go because of low heating area and high ablation temps. Ti Fuel tanks don't because they again don't ablate, have high area to low mass which makes it less likely to go because they come down slower, and the rest of the sat has to go before it starts to heat. The mirrors and lenses are similar.

Re:why do we care (1)

mqduck (232646) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197290)

If a rock would burn up on reentry, why not a hunk of metal?
What do the effects of our reentering Iraq in 2004 have to do with a satellite falling from orbit?

physics problem (5, Funny)

Heem (448667) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196592)

OK, someone do the math:

  How thick of a tinfoil hat would I have to put on top of my house to protect it from a 12-ton satellite?

Re:physics problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196798)

silly rabbit

physicists can't do math!

Re:physics problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197088)

sure they can, as long as they let a broad enough base premise be assumed true for the problems frame of reference!

These things kill. (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196596)

When Skylab hit the cow, the American government refused to compensate.

Peru? (1)

genican1 (1150855) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196598)

Wasn't there some speculation that a recent cause of a strange sickness breaking out in (I think it was Peru) due to this sort of thing? "hazardous matereials"

Re:Peru? (4, Informative)

volsung (378) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196692)

Actually, those hazardous materials were all natural and already in the ground: Meteor Crash in Peru Caused Mysterious Illness [nationalgeographic.com] . Noxious fumes created by hot meteor smashing into arsenic-tainted water.

Look out Osama! (4, Funny)

Cordath (581672) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196600)

The probability of this satellite landing on Osama bin Laden is probably higher than the probability of him being caught within the next couple of months. It's good to see the U.S. finally cracking down on that slimeball!

EMP or BSOD? (5, Funny)

russlar (1122455) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196604)

I'm guessing these things don't just shut down on their own. So, readers of /., which is more likely the cause?

1. Focused EMP from the surface?

or

2. It was running Windows.

Re:EMP or BSOD? (1)

cyphercell (843398) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196648)

Doesn't matter, they're going to claim it was pummeled by China's space junk.

Re:EMP or BSOD? (3, Funny)

Comatose51 (687974) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196994)

3. It "upgraded" to Vista.

OMG is it powered by tritium - dont go outside! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196608)

If its a tritium powered satellite then the tritium burning up in the atmosphere could kill everyone in its path... its water soluable but how long did it take for DDT to wash out of the soil?

Re:OMG is it powered by tritium - dont go outside! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197230)

Wow, I didn't know how many things you could get wrong in two sentences..

If the satellite is powered by radioactive isotopes, it is almost certainly a radiothermal battery. Tritium has a half-life of 12 years, which means you would see the power yield drop too quickly for a satellite to be useful. This thing probably contains plutonium, which has a long enough half-life to be a relatively stable power source, but short enough that you don't need so much of it get a decent amount of heat. (You may now proceed to wig out about a few kg of plutonium dispersed in the atmosphere if the canister fails...)

Even if there were tritium on the satellite, it would "burn up" in the atmosphere since tritium IS hydrogen. The heat of reentry would probably cause the tritium to bond with oxygen forming water vapor in the upper atmosphere. This would be well away from people, not to mention the radioactivity would be dispersed over such a wide area, it would be hard for it to kill anyone.

And finally, tritium is "water-soluable" only because it you usually find it replacing one of the hydrogens in the water molecule if it is hanging around on the ground (otherwise it's dispersed into the atmosphere). That is to say, tritium if you find it in the soil IS water (radioactive, of course), essentially. Comparing it to DDT is silly. The tritium will go disperse through dilution with untainted water, as well as simultaneously decay away due to the 12 year half-life. So no matter what happens, you get an extra factor of two drop in intensity every decade. (If we could only be so lucky with the nasty stuff in spent uranium fuel rods. Some of those isotopes take centuries or millennia to decay in half.)

To be fair, the short half-life of tritium means that it doesn't take very much of it in one place to exceed suggested health limits. So the best thing for an unlikely falling canister of tritium would be to either stay totally contained all the way down, or to fragment early on, where it can disperse into the atmosphere, which can easily absorb a man-made amount of tritium (hard to make very much) into its vast amount of water vapor.

You should be more concerned about the satellite hitting you in the head.

Decleraton of war (1)

future assassin (639396) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196636)

So are we gonna take bets on if this will auto magically land on Iran. Also if it does fall on another country does this constitute a first strike since its military equipment.

Re:Decleraton of war (1)

Cosmic AC (1094985) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196706)

I'm guessing you didn't read the article:

Such an uncontrolled re-entry could risk exposure of U.S. secrets, said John Pike, a defense and intelligence expert. Spy satellites typically are disposed of through a controlled re-entry into the ocean so that no one else can access the spacecraft, he said.

Re:Decleraton of war (1)

Cosmic AC (1094985) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196828)

Or just what did you mean by your post anyway?

Re:Decleraton of war (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196830)

So are we gonna take bets on if this will auto magically land on Iran.
No, and that's the most ridiculous question I've heard today.

Also if it does fall on another country does this constitute a first strike since its military equipment.
No, and I take back what I said above.

Re:Decleraton of war (1)

Kawahee (901497) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196902)

So are we gonna take bets on if this will auto magically land on Iran. Also if it does fall on another country does this constitute a first strike since its military equipment.
Gee, I'd love to answer any questions you have but I don't see any question marks. Anywhere.

Decleraton of war
IT'S A TARP!

Damn it (1)

Alexx K (1167919) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196660)

And here I was hoping it was a Vulcan ship!

China (1)

cybrchld (229583) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196684)

Maybe it's a coincidence but didn't china not to long ago demonstrate they could shoot don satellites...

Re:China (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196734)

Yeah ... but then there's that whole "Act of War" scenario you get into when you shoot down enemy satellites. Not that they wouldn't if they could get away with it, but I'd bet that China's biding its time until they're ready to make something out of that military they're building at U.S. expense. Then I suspect that any satellite that they know belongs to us will get shot down.

here it is (5, Informative)

lecithin (745575) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196722)

That will be USA 193 (06-057A, #29651). This is it's current orbit:

USA 193
1 29651U 06057A 08022.26925691 0.00105000 00000-0 21306-3 0 07
2 29651 58.5247 160.3977 0003288 53.6760 306.3240 15.98950761 06

Lowest point is about 275 km above earth surface currently.

This under the right conditions is an easy to see object: it can reach magnitude
+1 and because of its low orbit is very fast, spectacular to see.

source: Marco Langbroek

picture in orbit:

http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/satcom_transits/USA193Sepbw1.jpg [wanadoo-members.co.uk]

http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/satcom_transits/193bw.jpg [wanadoo-members.co.uk]

Note, no solar panels.

Note (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196852)

John added the solar panels in the first image.

see the following note from him:

http://www.satobs.org/seesat/Jan-2008/0204.html [satobs.org]

Re:here it is (0, Redundant)

Scutter (18425) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196864)

Note, no solar panels.

The flat, rectangular bits on the top and bottom in that first link sure look like solar panels to me.

Looks like solar panels... (Re:here it is) (-1, Redundant)

mi (197448) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196884)

Note, no solar panels.

The second picture is too blurry, but the first [wanadoo-members.co.uk] seems to show solar panels... Or what are those rectangular things above and below the white spec in the middle?

Re:here it is (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196886)

the first picture has solar panels

Re:here it is (5, Interesting)

theNAM666 (179776) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196970)

If USA-193, via Milcom [blogspot.com] , it's only been up since DEC-06 and may be something other than the ordinary monitoring platform:

USA-193/NROL-21 Launch specifics:
Launch date/time: December 13, 2006 2100 UTC 16:00 EST
Launcher: Delta 2/7920-10
Launch location: Western Test Range, Vandenberg AFB, California
Launch complex/pad: SLC2W
International Designator: 2006-057A
SSC #: 29651
Latest orbital parameters: 376 by 354 km orbit (91.83 minute period), inclined 58.5 degress.

Ted Molczan posted the preliminary orbital elset below on SEESAT-L:

USA 193 0.0 0.0 0.0 4.8 v
1 29651U 06057A 06350.25405986 .00011325 00000-0 10000-3 0 03
2 29651 58.4865 114.2852 0013244 81.7541 278.5044 15.68046894 05
WRMS error = 0.026 deg

Ted noted the following observations in his post:

"The ground track nearly repeats every 2 days (30.92 revs), enabling frequent revisit of observational targets of interest. The first four Lacrosses behaved similarly (28.9 revs in 2 days). Lacrosse 5 makes 43.05 revs in 3 days. Keyholes nearly repeat every 4 days; NOSS every 4 days."

Looking at the early Lacrosse satellite missions, Ted is correct, but, of course, the Lacrosse radar imaging missions are launched into much higher altitude orbits (nearly double the height of NROL-21).

Intl Desig SSC # USA Number Period Inc Apogee Perigee
*1988-106B 19671 USA 034 97.91 56.98 660 657
1991-017A 21147 USA 069 98.00 68.00 667 660
*1997-064A 25017 USA 133 98.22 57.35 674 673 [Replaced Lacrosse 1]
2000-047A 26473 USA 152 98.47 67.99 690 681 [Replaced Lacrosse 2]
*2005-016A 28646 USA 182 99.08 57.01 718 712 [Replaced Lacrosse 3]
* Indicates a 57 degree inclination orbit, just 1.5 degree off the Lacrosse 57 deg inc plane.

As Jonathan McDowell points out in his Jonthan's Space Report Next Issue Draft:
"In contrast to most secret launches, analysts appear to have little clue as to what this payload may be."

My best guess, at this early stage, is that this is probably some sort of mission sensor platform other than a visual photo recon imaging mission. It also could be a new sensor development mission. But that is "only" a best guess!

Reboot problems ? (2, Insightful)

glooku (1227656) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197210)

"U.S. NRO spy satellite may be total loss
Wed Mar 7, 2007 10:17 AM IST
By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials are likely to declare a Lockheed
Martin Corp. spy satellite a total loss after efforts to restore its
ability to communicate failed repeatedly over the past three months,
two defense officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

The experimental L-21 classified satellite, built for the National
Reconnaissance Office (NRO) at a cost of hundreds of millions of
dollars, was launched successfully on Dec. 14 but has been out of
touch since reaching its low-earth orbit.

Limited data received from the satellite indicated that its on-board
computer tried rebooting several times, but those efforts failed, said
one official, who is knowledgeable about the program and spoke on
condition of anonymity.

The satellite carried sophisticated cameras to take high-resolution
pictures and test equipment intended for use on the broader Future
Imagery Architecture (FIA) program, in which both Boeing Co. and
Lockheed are involved.

Its failure raises questions about the schedule for the already-much-
delayed FIA program, which was due to launch a first satellite in two
to three years, analysts said.

One of the defense officials acknowledged the satellite's failure was
"not helpful."

"It's part of an overarching architecture. When you're trying to move
forward on several dimensions, it can't help accomplish those goals,"
the official said.

The other official said he expected schedule adjustments, but no major
delays, as a result of the NRO satellite failure.

"It might impact the schedule for introduction of new technologies,"
he added.

Another government official said he was unaware of any changes to the
FIA program as a result of the satellite issue.

Lockheed, prime contractor for the experimental NRO satellite,
declined to comment. The NRO, which designs, builds and operates
reconnaissance satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence
communities, also had no comment.

One of the defense officials said the issue with the satellite
involved the computer that runs it, not the new sensors that it was
meant to test.

"The failure has nothing to do with anything new. It happened with a
set of components ... that historically is known to be good," said the
official.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard- Smithsonian Center
For Astrophysics, said the satellite's software problems raised
questions about the adequacy of testing and oversight by the
contractors and the Air Force.

"The question is why was this software failure not caught in ground
test before launch," McDowell said, noting that oversight was
particularly challenging in classified programs.

He said the satellite's software woes were reminiscent of those
experienced by the Mars rover named Spirit, which was out of
communication for more than two weeks after it landed on Mars in
January 2004 because its flash disk kept filling up, prompting the
computer system to crash repeatedly.

Engineers finally solved the problem by sending a command to the
computer to clear the disk, enabling a successful rebooting of the
system, he said."

http://sci.tech-archive.net/Archive/sci.space.policy/2007-03/msg00261.html

give credit where credit is due (1)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196724)

Since the submitter is quoting the AP story verbatim, shouldn't he at least give some indication of where he lifted the text from?

score (1)

jovius (974690) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196730)

earth 5425 - satellites 0

Don't want to be the conspiracy theorist but... (3, Interesting)

TwoHundredOk (1136131) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196746)

How much is the warning of it having dangerous materials aboard meant to protect us and how much is it meant to keep people from being too inquisitive about the top secret spy satellite?

Furthermore, what sort of liability applies for a rogue space satellite if it crashes into your house? I'm sure the government will pay for it just to keep the media at bay, but still, an interesting tort question. I'd assume the government would be strictly liable. -TwoHundredOK

Re:Don't want to be the conspiracy theorist but... (1)

flajann (658201) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196898)

Crash into your house? What if it crashes into YOU?

You don't have to be a "conspiracy theorist" to point out the obvious!

Besides, the only problem with "conspiracy theorists" is that they spend way too much time and effort on the wrong conspiracies!!!! The real conspiracists love it because the nut cases make them practically "invisible". It's the boy who cried wolf syndrome...

Anyone call Bruce Willis? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196756)

Far too early to call Chuck Norris at this point.

Comparative Characteristics of Imagery Satellites (2, Informative)

djupedal (584558) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196770)

Comparative Characteristics of Imagery Satellites [fas.org]

Example: The Lacrosse satellite [wikipedia.org] (KH-12 is the other designation) weighs 14-16 tons.

"Lacrosse and Onyx are the code names for the United States' National Reconnaissance Office terrestrial radar imaging reconnaissance satellite. While not officially confirmed by the NRO or anybody in the U.S. government, there is widespread evidence to confirm its existence."

"Due to overruns, the cost of the Lacrosse-1 radar reconnaissance satellite launched in 1988 from the Space Shuttle exceeded $1 billion. In the opinion of experts, it was designed, above all, to search for mobile launchers for Soviet ICBM's and track strategic weapon systems beyond staging bases. The radar images were transmitted to the processing center via TDRS repeaters located under the management of NASA and deployed in a geostationary orbit. The Lacrosse-2 was launched in 1991 using a Titan-4 booster rocket from the Western Missile Test Range, which made it possible to increase the orbit inclination and, consequently, the zone of coverage from 57 to 68 degrees."

Solution (1)

coopaq (601975) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196780)

Can we get Bruce Wallas and Ben Aflac to drill a hole in it and blow it up?

Re:Solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197026)

> Ben Aflac

The duck? Actually, Gilbert Gottfried in that movie might have made it better. Dunno about "Bruce Wallas".

High speed re-entry could be a test... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196796)

...of the telescope's "zoom" factor.

U.S. Secrets more important than human lives? (2, Interesting)

flajann (658201) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196808)

Having read the article, it would seem that the government is far more concerned about "loosing state secrets" than loosing lives due to the uncontrolled fall of this 12-tonne satellite. If it falls into a heavily populated area like, say, New York or London, those killed by it could care less about some silly and inane "secrets" that are over 10 years out of date, anyway.

Re:U.S. Secrets more important than human lives? (1)

frakir (760204) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196934)

15-tonne object is like 2.5m radius meteor. It'll never reach the surface in one piece, breaking up about 80-100km above earth. A few rather small chunks may possibly hit the ground, though. I say nothing to get paranoid about.

Re:U.S. Secrets more important than human lives? (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196952)

If it lands in the US, we hail the brave heros who broke the fall of this glorious state machinery.

If it lands anywhere else, then it's tough luck for the sub-human foreigners who should all be rounded up and shot anyway.

Has anyone else noted how similar we now sound to the Russians at the height of the Cold War?

Re:U.S. Secrets more important than human lives? (1)

ivan256 (17499) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197064)

That's because the odds of it killing somebody are almost astronomically lower than the odds of it landing in the middle of nowhere, but reachable by somebody who we'd rather didn't find it.

Chances are it's going to land in the ocean. Chances are that if it doesn't land in the ocean it's going to hit unoccupied land.

Causing an international incident really is the biggest worry here. Worrying about somebody getting killed by this thing is equivalent to worrying that somebody who lives on a back-road in the sticks is going to have an 18-wheeler drive off the road and hit their living room... Except that the truck accident scenario is actually more likely.

Re:U.S. Secrets more important than human lives? (1)

reallocate (142797) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197130)

Who said the deorbit will be uncontrolled?

Oh, horsecrap! (1)

Brett Buck (811747) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197136)

How is it's classification level related to the chance of hitting someone? Oh, that's right - there's no relationship. And if it's really just dead (like both prime and redundant of some critical system both failed) they could publish the entire stack of schematics on the front page of the NYT and it wouldn't change a damn thing. Other than pointlessly revealing important secure information.

          And, from having been involved in a satellite launch that failed and had the potential from burning in, everybody involved takes it very seriously indeed. In our case, our spacecraft was stuck in a low orbit that passed over 70% of the worlds population. The primary concern of all involved, including the government customer, was eliminating the possibility of coming down uncontrolled in a populated area. Even though the chances of parts of significant size and weight making it all the way to the ground were not very high at all, any hope of salvaging it for test purposes, etc, was not on the table as it raised the chances that it would come down uncontrolled in a few hundred years.

        Regardless of the bizarre paranoia over 'The Government', everyone who works there is a person with just as much sense and concern for others as anyone else. If you would be concerned, so would they. Keeping secrets would not outweigh any significant risk to someone on the ground - it's that in this case you knowing more about it almost certainly wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. Whether you want to believe it or not, there are very legitimate reasons for most security decisions.

              Brett

Re:Oh, horsecrap! (1)

Zorton (2520) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197284)

I'm going to have to agree with Brett. It does suck that our government has taken such a turn towards security away from individual privacy as of late. The stereotypical image of the evil g-man shrugging his unconcerned shoulders over a bird coming down on city full of people is silly. There are plenty of people who work for the federal government who care quite a bit about all those "taxpayers" keeping them in the job.

On a related note take a look at the role of the "range safety officer" during satellite launches. Then think about the range safety officer with his hand over the "destroy" button during shuttle launches.

On condition of anonymity... (1)

Frosty Piss (770223) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196854)

First, let me say I *don't* like this new Web 2.0 crap with the Forum...

Government officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified as secret.
Which to "Government Officials" mean "not really Secret at all..."? Where I work, when Secrets are blabbed about, there is an unpleasant investigation, and the offending party's clearance is yanked. These days, getting even a Secret clearance can take a few years...

Re:On condition of anonymity... (1)

Rakishi (759894) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197058)

First, let me say I *don't* like this new Web 2.0 crap with the Forum...
You can disable it using the prefs (or whatever it's called) link in the floating options box on the left. I'd give more details but I disabled mien already and have no desire to re-enable it.

KH-11 details (5, Informative)

Cliff Stoll (242915) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196920)

KH-11 series spacecraft were called the Key Hole satellites - they were the first large reconnaissance spacecraft to send images directly to earth; previous spy satellites used film return (clumsy, slow, and unreliable). KH-11's used CCDs - quite advanced for a system developed in the late 1970's.

The seven KH-11 spacecraft had primary mirrors of 2.3 to 2.4 meters. The system provided an ultimate ground resolution between 15 to 50 cm at closest approach (perigee); actual resolution was quite a bit worse.

There's no nuclear battery on board -- power came from 11 unfolded solar panels (which, on the first Key Hole satellites didn't provide quite enough power during downlinks!). I assume the main danger to earthlings is due to the reentry of the main mirror. Since the KH-11s are in polar orbits, the debris could come down anywhere on earth, with a one-in-four chance of hitting land.

The KH-11 spy satellites were developed in parallel with the Hubble Space Telescope, and the same contractors worked on both. In fact, the KH-11 uses much the same hardware (carbon-graphite support system, front door hatch system, data-relay dish through communications satellites). Because of the secrecy surrounding the KH-11 development, the Space Telescope project often saw similar secrecy. Indeed, astronomers were discouraged (or barred) from much of the engineering of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Cosmos 954 cleanup with computer technology view (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22196926)

Very interesting first-hand account of the radiological cleanup of the crash of a Soviet spy satellite in Canada: http://gsc.nrcan.gc.ca/gamma/ml_e.php [nrcan.gc.ca]

The Canadians had a Nova minicomputer which was subjected to conditions that it was never designed for. They programmed it by editing memory locations by hand... Not with the front-panel switches, even though Nova had those.

Space Cowboys (2, Funny)

psychicsword (1036852) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196936)

If the satellite was Russian and had nukes then we would have a Space Cowboy [imdb.com] Situation

Someone should do the math... (0)

Dutch Gun (899105) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196972)

I wonder what the odds are that it will actually hit a person on the ground? Obviously, the math gets more complicated as you figure in the path of the satellite. I'm guessing it would be a polar orbit, then? This means that the odds are proportionally higher that it will fall on a particular spot the farther north or south you go. And, how big large an area would we consider a kill-zone for a satellite of this size?

Finally a use for our anti-missile defense system! (0, Redundant)

BadEvilYoda (935532) | more than 6 years ago | (#22196992)

Since, generally speaking, spy satellites are considered the most closely guarded secrets of both the US and any other nation producing them, rest assured that this will never be allowed to hit the ground before being blown into a million pieces. If an ocean-ditch isn't in the cards, since it appears they've lost all control of the satellite and are at the mercy of probability during the deorbit, the US will not let it re-enter and land somewhere (even in pieces) where another country could examine the wreckage. (and yes, I'm including allied countries.) Our "anti-ballistic missile defense system" may get its first real-world test! Alternatively, if it does land, a B-2 will certainly turn the landing zone into a smoking many-thousand degree crater seconds or minutes later. It doesn't matter if it's ten year old tech - no one else is going to be getting their hands on it if the US has anything to say about it. (and yes, I'm including if it lands in a populated area.) If it can't be recovered covertly, it will be destroyed overtly.

Re:Finally a use for our anti-missile defense syst (1)

tftp (111690) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197072)

Alternatively, if it does land, a B-2 will certainly turn the landing zone into a smoking many-thousand degree crater seconds or minutes later.

I'm not sure how this B-2 scenario is going to work if the satellite falls deep within the territory of China or Russia. Gary Powers [wikipedia.org] does not work for the US Government any more.

Re:Finally a use for our anti-missile defense syst (0, Troll)

JockTroll (996521) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197082)

Were you masturbating while you wrote that shit, loserboy? Do you have any fucking evidence for the shit you wrote, little wanker? Have you researched historical precedents? Obviously not. Because you're stupid. Bend over backwards and piss up your nostrils while we shit on your face.

Oh boy! (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197030)

Another chance at a free taco! [about.com] Whoo hoo!

Use the B-L-I-N-K-I-N-G red light! (1)

o0OSABO0o (937312) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197042)

It seems to me that in just about every SciFi space movie I have every seen you just have to turn on the blinking red self-destruct light and it will blow itself up -- with a very nice "Have A Nice Day" announcement just before the BIG Ka-Boom! Oh, and cut the yellow wire if you need to stop it after the fail-safe point has past.

Called a troll when I raised doubts (1)

bogaboga (793279) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197066)

I was called a troll when I raised doubts about USA's record on "old" satellites. http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=416142&cid=22015824 [slashdot.org]

I'd be more than happy to see those that labeled me say something meaningful about this. Worse still, we might have to deal with toxic substances.

stfu (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197104)

would you please stop tagging every story with whatcouldpossiblygowrong? it's annoying you fags.

Bricked? (0, Troll)

amirulbahr (1216502) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197120)

No need to worry. Bricks burn up pretty quickly when they drop out of orbit.

Lame article (1)

earlymon (1116185) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197128)

I'm sorry, but it just is. One example is the no-comment for security reasons on whether or not we might "shoot it down." Uhhhhhh..... maybe it would be a security issue to create a bigger debris field to deal with where such platforms are flying, and that's satellite-speak for "What a dumb question?"

Or, how the leap was made from spy satellite to keyholes are falling......

Or, the spokesman had to speak from anonymity due to security?

The posts here are about a bazillion times more insightful and informative than the articles. Read /. and avoid the article - nothing to see there...

I feel MUCH better! (1)

mmccoombe (533146) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197150)

Now that I know the lawmakers are going to be briefed...

The bright side (1)

Butisol (994224) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197174)

Just another infinitesimally small chance that my worthless life will be ended swiftly, painlessly, and unexpectedly. w00t.

I believe russia has fixed this with empty missile (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22197182)

I believe russia has bounced satellites back into proper orbit with empty missiles. If there's nuclear power in that satellite it may be the only thing that saves us.

Will hit Osama (1)

mynickwastaken (690966) | more than 6 years ago | (#22197206)

Wow! A spy satellite?!
Definitively will drop on Osama's head!
Finally they got him!
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