Sunday, February 03, 2008

Incoming : Classified US Spy Satellite Could Plough Into Australia

Skylab debris in the Esperance museum (photo credit)

The US government refuses to confirm that the surveillance satellite now falling from orbit and possibly heading for Australia in the next few weeks is the classified military satellite USA 193.

But specialists and amateur satellite trackers have few doubts about which satellite is coming down.

The USA 193 weighs about 4000 kilograms and is the size of a small bus. Most of the satellite is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, but large pieces of debris may be heading for Australia.

The Australian government agency Emergency Management Australia has "a number of contingency plans" if the satellite ends up on course for Australia. An approximate destination for the satellite debris is not expected to be known until a day or two before it impacts.

Considering the USA 193 is a classified American military spy satellite, you'd presume that American military agencies already based in Australia are helping formulate those contingency plans :

The plan was developed in 2001 when there was a remote possibility of debris from the Mir space station falling on Australia.

"It's expected to land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and that's a big space...Mind you, Skylab was supposed to land in the ocean."

The 78-tonne US space station's crash to earth in 1979 spread debris across the south of Western Australia.

How did some of the affected WA shires respond. Esperance issued the US government with a $400 littering fine and then put some of the Skylab debris on display its shire museum.

There is plenty of informed speculation that the "hazardous materials" on board USA 193 is hydrazine (a propellant) and possibly beryllium (used in satellite solar panels and mirrors).

Neither is good news.

Hydrazine is highly toxic and dangerously unstable, especially in the anhydrous form. Symptoms of acute exposure to high levels of hydrazine in humans may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edema, seizures, coma, and it can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. Effects to the lungs, liver, spleen, and thyroid have been reported in animals chronically exposed to hydrazine via inhalation. Increased incidences of lung, nasal cavity, and liver tumors have been observed in rodents exposed to hydrazine.
Beryllium :
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), beryllium and beryllium compounds are Category 1 carcinogens; they are carcinogenic to both animals and humans.
Some more on USA 193 :
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.
More info from Arms Control Wonk, and some interesting comments, here.

The most likely time period for re-entry of USA 193, according to this site, is late March.

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