February 20, 2008
When watching your satellite TV or talking on your cell phone, do you ever think about all the satellites that circle the earth? Do you ever wonder how many there are? Which country has the most? What would happen if they began to fall back to earth?
To tell the truth, I never gave it much thought, until I read a news account about today's Atlantis space shuttle landing that said, "NASA wanted Atlantis back as soon as possible to clear the way for the Navy to shoot down a dying spy satellite on the verge of smashing into Earth with a load of toxic fuel. The missile could be launched as early as Wednesday night from a warship in the Pacific."
I have to say, those two sentences captured my attention, and I wanted to learn more.
The Detroit Free Press reported that "the spy satellite failed shortly after its 2006 launch and has been falling slowly out of orbit. The military plans to shoot it down using part of the Ballistic Missile Defense System, primarily to prevent large pieces of the satellite and its load of toxic fuel from endangering people if it lands in a populated area.
"The secret satellite would be blown into hundreds of smaller pieces that the military says would then fall from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, reducing the danger to people on the ground."
According to the New York Times, plans to launch the missile tonight have been scrapped because of high seas, but an attempt could be made as early as tomorrow night (Thursday, Feb. 21).
The newspaper said, "Experts continue to debate the threat posed by a device containing 1,000 pounds of hydrazine that could crash almost anywhere in the world, and China and other nations remain unpersuaded that shooting it down is wise, with Russia saying there's not 'enough arguments' in favor."
The satellite is projected to crash to earth on its own sometime in the first week in March. Between now and military officials say they have time for two or possibly three shots (missiles) to bring it down before then. Each missile costs about $10 million. The operation, which is being handled by destroyers in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, could cost between $40 and $60 million.
The rogue satellite will pass overhead tonight at about 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, and the Pentagon has issued a warning to aircraft to steer clear of the area for the next two evenings, according to Space.com.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports that 873 satellites now are orbiting the earth. The UCS's Web site lists the satellites and displays the satellite name; country of operator/owner; operator/owner; users (government, commercial, civilian, military); and its purpose. Interesting reading. (So are the reader comments at the end of the New York Times article.)
Although absolutely no references were made to the movie Deep Impact in any of the articles I read, I'm thinking about watching it tonight. When I do, I'll be thinking about the military personnel performing this mission as Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall take care of business. Anything's possible in the movies.