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Space Hardware

Defunct Spy Satellite Falling From Orbit 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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Defunct Spy Satellite Falling From Orbit

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  • by oakbox ( 414095 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:31PM (#22196574) Homepage
    Those stories about telling what brand of cigarettes a person was smoking from space seem a lot more plausible.

    • Jesus... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SpectreBlofeld ( 886224 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:34PM (#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.

      • Re:Jesus... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by funwithBSD ( 245349 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:40PM (#22196638)
        You don't need anything that exotic, the thruster fuel, hydrazine, is dangerous enough: []
        • Re:Jesus... (Score:5, Funny)

          by ivan256 ( 17499 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @08:33PM (#22197012)
          Which is presumably what this thing has run out of...
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by kcbanner ( 929309 ) *
            Naw, its flux capacitor probably just ran dry. Couldn't sustain 88mph any longer :/
          • Well, with that reasoning there must not be any radioactivity either, seeing how it ran out of power. Problem solved!
        • Re:Jesus... (Score:5, Funny)

          by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @11:14PM (#22197736)

          ...hydrazine, is dangerous enough

          That reminds me of Lance missile crew training. Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine was the fuel and inhibited red fuming nitric acid was the oxidizer.

          Both are hazardous and there was a leak indicator on the missile containter. IIRC half turned one color for UDMH and the other half turned another color for IRFNA. This usually prompted a question from trainees about what would happen if both were leaking :-D

      • Oh please (Score:5, Interesting)

        by ArchieBunker ( 132337 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:47PM (#22196688) Homepage
        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. []
      • Re:Jesus... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:52PM (#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: (Score:2, Redundant)

        by Deadstick ( 535032 )
        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?


        • 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... (Score:5, Interesting)

            by JWSmythe ( 446288 ) * <> on Saturday January 26, 2008 @11:11PM (#22197720) Homepage Journal

                I'll pass this on from a trustworthy source.

                They do that. :)

                Some facilities shut down entirely, just to not be spotted by the satellite on it's regular orbits.

                That's also why you'll never see any of the cool gear on the satellite photos over Area 51. They stick it away somewhere safe when they know an observation satellite is coming.

          • You have a point, but as long as you've got fuel on board (and the fact that this thing doesn't anymore is notable) you can at least move its orbit around so you're not in the exact same space they'd be looking for you next time. Then, you might just be able to hide a little better for a while if you don't have as big a profile.
      • Re:Jesus... (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 26, 2008 @08:12PM (#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.
        • by Bill, Shooter of Bul ( 629286 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @09:18PM (#22197222) Journal
          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:Jesus... (Score:5, Informative)

          by RaySnake ( 607687 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @10:02PM (#22197432)
          Your post contains the sort of interesting truths and half-truths from which conspiracy theories grow. I'll try to add to the true parts while keeping things interesting. The US does currently have several nuclear powered space vehicles, all of them deep space missions and all of the powered by RTGs. (Voyager I/II, Poineer I/II, Cassini, New Horizon, etc) RTGs are different from reactors in that they are passive devices relying on spontaneous isotopic decay and therefore have a fairly constant (but decreasing) power output. Reactors meanwhile have a feedback loop controlling the energy and number of neutrons available to initiate fission and so have variable power output. The reasons RTGs are used for deep space vehicles are that they're economical and simple. Because of the pesky inverse square law for illumination intensity solar panels start becoming more expensive than RTGs somewhere around the asteroid belt. Relative to fast reactors like SNAP-10 and the Russian TOPAZ RTGs are child's play and dead safe. RTGs are also much less harmful in the case of a launch accident since the plutonium oxide fuel is an alpha emitter and is encased in metal anyway. The US has only launched one satellites a nuclear reactor, SNAP-10A which was expensive and only lasted 43 days. Since it was unreliable in addition to being horrendously expensive the US stopped pursuing reactors in space since since other technologies were better fits. Fortunately for us the Russians probably thought we turned it into a black program and started furiously testing nuclear reactors on satellites. Consequently the Russians have the most experience with reactors in space since they have launched over 30. If we ever need a space craft with over 100KW of power where reactors become cost effective I'm sure we'll be looking at their designs.
        • Just as an FYI, "nuclear powered" tends to mean "Plutonium." That was true for Soviet satellites. There wasn't much info floating around for the keyhole class satellites (which this one presumably is, since it's prefixed 'KH'). But it's a good bet that it had one.

          I'd like to think that the designers, when they designed the satellite, realized that re-entering a chunk of Plutonium was a bad idea and designed a mechanism to eject it in an escape orbit. Hopefully it's now-uncontrolled orbit is due to the eject
          • by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @04:44PM (#22202080)
            Beryllium is slightly hazardous. As a dust, it causes an allergic reaction in about 10-15% of people exposed, which can lead to some pretty severe long term health consequences for people with that dust in their lungs. This particular Beryllium is more likely to come down as significantly sized bits of metal than as a dust, so effects are most likely to be totally non-existent, unless a piece actually lands on somebody.
      • by no-body ( 127863 )
        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: []
      • 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.
      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        Somebody will call me an idiot for considering the laws of optics instead of pure scifi as on other threads - but due to having a highly elliptical orbit the things spend some time grazing the atmosphere so air resistance is actually a factor. Big solar panels would slow it down and it would deorbit more quickly and require more fuel to stay up there. As a result they have a nuclear power source, most likely similar to that on the soviet Kosmos series that performed the same role.

        The highly ellipical orbi

        • Re:Jesus... (Score:5, Interesting)

          by st1d ( 218383 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @12:16AM (#22197998) Homepage
          >>Somebody will call me an idiot for considering the laws of optics instead of pure scifi as on other threads - but due to having a highly elliptical orbit the things spend some time grazing the atmosphere so air resistance is actually a factor. Big solar panels would slow it down and it would deorbit more quickly and require more fuel to stay up there.

          Idiot. :) True though.

          >>As a result they have a nuclear power source, most likely similar to that on the soviet Kosmos series that performed the same role.

          Not really. The solar panels would be blocked by the earth a significant amount of time each orbit, which would require more batteries charging faster to keep the whole mess from slowly bleeding power. That means the solar panes would have to be significantly larger the closer you orbited. Design and weight issues probably make nuclear a better option. Also, last thing you want is to lose your eyes in the sky during an engagement because some piece of space junk just tore a hole through your panels. Nuclear systems can be protected better, which is also far more important the closer you are to the planet, as years of space exploration debris make orbiting objects virtual pincushions.

          >>The highly ellipical orbit is so that they can get close to take high resolution images.

          It's to save fuel. You can get/stay close, but you're going to be burning through fuel at an enormous rate. On the other hand, an elliptical orbit allows you to move the focal point of your trajectory outside where most people would assume it was. This allows you to follow/lag the planet as it orbits the sun, using earth's gravity well to propel your spacecraft. Basically, you keep aiming for where the planet will be, using the earth's mass to slingshot you around each time as both objects arrive and "pass" each other.

          >>The theoretical resolving power of a perfect lens at a given wavelength is determined by distance - so it does not matter how good the optics are the closer you get the better the image you can get.

          You've obviously never used a pair of high power binoculars inside. You're right about the lens, but most of these "lenses" aren't wavelength specific, if any are. They're far more likely to cover a fairly large range of wavelengths, even if they're marketed as just infrared, ultraviolet, etc. In those cases, the theoretical perfects are meaningless. Most of these aren't single lens systems anyway, even the older ones used multiple and movable lensing systems, as flexibility is often the real design goal, far above perfection. You could design a lens that can count the hairs on your head, but if it only has the ability to view that resolution, you're pretty much hosed for 99% of your missions. Same for single use systems, such as optical or wavelength-specific viewers.

          And getting close isn't always a good idea. The recent Chinese gaming is a good example. If close was a panacea, they'd be designing these things to rip through the atmosphere at incredible speeds, essentially doing a kind of reentry every so often. If their orbits were designed correctly they wouldn't necessarily even burn that much fuel, they'd just take forever to complete each orbit as they restored momentum. Would be a little unnerving to see fireballs tear through the sky every couple minutes, but like everything else, I suppose we'd even adapt to the sonic booms.

          Nope, the whole idea of spy satellites is stealth. Everyone knows they're up there, but they're used with the idea that you'll either forget about them, assume they're pointed elsewhere, or screw up somehow. Having them flash through the sky on a regular basis would only enhance the measures you'd take to cover your tracks, and no resolution can correct for that.

          Oh, and most of them are more geared towards communications intercepts anyway, picking up handhelds and other local command communication devices. Photos are good, but knowing what your enemy is going to do next is much more fun. :)
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by dbIII ( 701233 )

            The theoretical resolving power of a perfect lens at a given wavelength is determined by distance


            You've obviously never used a pair of high power binoculars inside

            Looks like I aimed too high :(

            but most of these "lenses" aren't wavelength specific

            I'm not sure where that came from - it looks like there is no common ground here at all :(

            My point, which was horribly missed, is that the best possible optics produce better results when you get closer. For this reason the satellites come down low. They can

    • by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:41PM (#22196642) Homepage Journal
      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 [], but space based adaptive optics work is an area of very active interest in a variety of fields from science to intelligence.

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

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jd_esguerra ( 582336 )
        Adaptive optics are not that new. (BTW, they are also used in LASIK, I think.)

        The objective is to estimate wavefront distortion along the viewing path caused by "atmosphere." These distortions are compensated for by a deformable mirror (and usually a tip-tilt mirror). But I do not believe that you can do better than what is predicted assuming diffraction limited optics... I will have to pull out my Tyson book to check. (Or rather, someone else can...)

        There are algorithms that use blind deconvolution to "bac
    • by theNAM666 ( 179776 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:59PM (#22196772)
      From Yahoo! []

      Pike, director of the defense research group, 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?
    • 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.
      • 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
      • by tgd ( 2822 )
        Yup, thats pretty widely claimed in print, and I've seen it published with sources that struck me as pretty reliable.
  • is this going to contribute to space junk, hit my house, or just burn up on the way in?
  • by Heem ( 448667 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:33PM (#22196592) Homepage Journal
    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?
    • 12 tons
          17,000 mph

          [breaking out the "really big" calculator]


          REALLY thick.

          I suggest at least a mile, and don't be under it when it hits. :)

          Do you have a good supplier for tin foil?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:34PM (#22196596)
    When Skylab hit the cow, the American government refused to compensate.
    • Mainly because the farmer couldn't prove that it was the hazardous chemicals from the wreckage that killed the cow. After Skylab impacted right on top of it at 9.8 meters per second.
  • by Cordath ( 581672 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:34PM (#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!
  • by russlar ( 1122455 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:35PM (#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?


    2. It was running Windows.
  • here it is (Score:5, Informative)

    by lecithin ( 745575 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:51PM (#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: [] []

    Note, no solar panels.
    • Note (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 26, 2008 @08:12PM (#22196852)
      John added the solar panels in the first image.

      see the following note from him: []
    • Re:here it is (Score:5, Interesting)

      by theNAM666 ( 179776 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @08:27PM (#22196970)
      If USA-193, via Milcom [], 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 ? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by glooku ( 1227656 )
      "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
    • This is it's current orbit

      An excellent post, thank you for it. But don't blow it with the bad grammar. See my sig.

  • Since the submitter is quoting the AP story verbatim, shouldn't he at least give some indication of where he lifted the text from?
  • by TwoHundredOk ( 1136131 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:54PM (#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
    • by flajann ( 658201 )
      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...

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Stop it. You're playing into their hands. You keep coming up with the wrong conspiracies about conspiracies, the whole time letting the real conspirators on conspiracy conspire just as invisibly as you say the fake real conspirators do.
  • by djupedal ( 584558 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:58PM (#22196770)
    Comparative Characteristics of Imagery Satellites []

    Example: The Lacrosse satellite [] (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."
  • 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.
    • by frakir ( 760204 )
      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.
    • by ivan256 ( 17499 )
      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 s
    • Who said the deorbit will be uncontrolled?
      • Who said the deorbit will be uncontrolled?

        So not only did you not RTFA, but you didn't even RTFS?

        The thing ran out of fuel. It's rather difficult to control the de-orbiting of a satellite which has no fuel.

        With that said, though, before servicing satellites in orbit became common-place (mostly thanks to the CANADARM), the US military used to catch de-orbiting satellites using transport aircraft. Sounds weird, I know, but it's true. What's the chances that this satellite might have been outfitted

    • 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 pot
  • 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...
    • by Rakishi ( 759894 )

      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 (Score:5, Informative)

    by Cliff Stoll ( 242915 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @08:21PM (#22196920) Homepage
    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.

  • If the satellite was Russian and had nukes then we would have a Space Cowboy [] Situation
  • I was called a troll when I raised doubts about USA's record on "old" satellites. []

    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.

  • 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 informati
  • Are likely to survive reentry. Skylab had a film safe that survived, too.... but this kind of device is (obviously) unmanned, has no "film safe" and has depleted its energy supply (thermal based upon radio-nucleotide decay) - so, one mass might actually reach the planet's surface.
  • Who do you call? its not like it will officially exist, so i guess you are just out of luck getting your car/house/foot replaced.
  • I hope it isn't China's anti-satellite defense system, because that would just result in bad, bad things. Especially since Bush & Cheney have so "little" time left and his legacy stands no chance of being favourable.
  • Insurance (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Whiteox ( 919863 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @11:01PM (#22197676) Journal
    Most insurance cover specifically includes statements that any space debris (including falling satellites) will not be covered.
    So it's every geek for themselves!
    I believe the clause was written in years ago when Sputnik fell to Earth. That goes for meteors, blue ice, rocket stages and acts of God (whatever that means).
  • by EQ ( 28372 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @11:18PM (#22197752) Homepage Journal
    Launched Dec 26 2006, had orbital control problems or else was launched into a very unusual orbit for an intelligence platform. (Open info in the internet).

    Given that its NRO and that size, I'd guess its a multi-sensor platfrom.

    Pretty sad - those things run about $2 Billion. And you can bet that its absence will leave holes in intelligence coverage and really contrain intelligence gathering due to restriction of resources.

    Give that plutonium power sources are pretty robust - few moving parts, but low earth orbit stuff doesnt need that - solar and batteries are usually sufficient. So its likely solar powered.

    Seems the NRO has not learned to diversify, still putting its eggs in one big basket. That and that the Aerospace companies that sell them to the Govt only know how to make One Big Rocket instead of managing constellations of more numerous but smaller and chaeper satellites. (Pet Peeve of mine).

    I bet they had solar arrays, but from amateur images there werent any deployed at any time. That would be the reason why the satellite died - something broke in the solar arrays or deployment process. Since its that new of a satellite (2006), I bet they had equipment failures from the start if its power that is the issue.

    Tinfoil hat time: Take all of my above speculation (I used to work in Aerospace and the military) with a grain of salt - they could be using "power" as a cover some classified event that trashed the satellite, like a collision with junk from the Chinese anti-missle mess. That would be very politically inconvenient for the Bush administration right now, and this would be a nice excuse to make that problem go away.

    Whatever the case is, the US intelligence community is out 2 billion, and a lot of capacity that was supposed to come online is not there. Could make for problems.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Attaturk ( 695988 )

      ...they could be using "power" as a cover some classified event that trashed the satellite, like a collision with junk from the Chinese anti-missle mess. That would be very politically inconvenient for the Bush administration right now, and this would be a nice excuse to make that problem go away.

      That debris field was the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw the headline too. I have no idea how frequently new, big satellites decide to plummet but it strikes this layman as a pretty big coincidence t

  • I see a couple of comments above naming the satellite as "USA 193" - is there some good source confirming this? I need a reliable source if I'm to write the Wikipedia article, damnit! Posts on Slashdot apparently aren't acceptable any more... and I don't want a whole bunch of {{dubious}} {{disputed}} {{citation needed}} tags appearing...
  • by afabbro ( 33948 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @01:43PM (#22200956) Homepage
    If it really can come down "anywhere," and if the Earth has 196,940,400 square miles, and there are 27,878,400 feet per square mile, and I take up about 1.5 square feet of space at any given time, then there is apparently a 1 in 3,660,255,498,240,000 (1 in 3.7 quintillion) chance that this will land on my head.

    Wait. Check that. If I'm asleep and horizontal, I probably take up more like 12 square feet. That increases the chance of having 20,000 tons of heavy metal land on me to 1 in 457,531,937,280,000. In other words, if you lie down, you are increasing the chances of being hit by a giant spy satellite by an order of magnitude. I don't know about you guys, but I'll be sleeping standing up from now on.

    Small consolation, I suppose, if it lands 10 feet West of you and the shock wave turns you into a fine mist.

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