A reprieve for the dying satellite

Update Thu. 7:44 a.m. – The Navy reports success in shooting down the satellite. China is lobbing the ball back over the net. It apparently was shot down on the next pass after it was spotted over the Twin Cities, making the following lame picture likely the last photograph of it.

Here’s some Pentagon pictures. Still waiting for the video to be posted.


Update 6:42 p.m. – I can attest that the satellite has not yet been shot down. I just observed it over the Twin Cities. Note lame picture.


So, I’m 0 for 2 in trying to spot this killer satellite, whose orbit is decaying and threatening to rain toxic hydrazine upon, well, who knows? It was probably a bad idea for me to drive eastbound on I-94 last night, straining my neck around and behind at 6:43, and looking 20 degrees above the northwest horizon, since it made me a bigger threat to Minnesota than hydrazine.

I didn’t think I’d get a third chance to see it tonight, but apparently I will since rough seas have conspired to thwart the Navy’s attempt to shoot it down.

Russia and China are concerned that this whole operation is a cover to test a new space weapon. If so, a flaw in its operation has now been made apparent.

By way of Google comments, James A. Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, takes on some of the lore that is building around this situation.

1. On the threat of hydrazine and the construction of the tank that contains it:

Hydrazine is highly dangerous stuff. It’s unstable, corrosive and explodes easily. That means that the fuel tanks for hydrazine are made extra tough. Unfortunately, the strength that lets the fuel tank carry hydrazine safely into space also means that the tank is tough enough to survive catastrophic reentry. When the shuttle broke apart on reentry a few years ago, the hydrazine tank was one of the few items to survive the fall unscathed. In that case, however, the tank contained only a few pounds of hydrazine. In this case, the tank is full. The risk is that the equivalent of a 1000-pound bomb could end up crashing down into a populated area.

2. It’s a space weapon test to impress the Chinese:

The U.S. doesn’t need to do this to impress the Chinese. They were already impressed by earlier successful tests, including the last one where an SM-3 missile launched from an Aegis cruiser hit a warhead 87 miles above the Pacific Ocean. This didn’t get a lot of public attention, but the Chinese military was sure to have followed it closely, if only because the U.S. has a cooperative missile defense program using Aegis with Japan, which the Chinese think could be used to defend Taiwan.

3. The whole idea is to keep a secret satellite out of the hands of “enemies.”

When a nuclear powered satellite built by the Soviet Union crashed in Canada in the 1970s, the Soviets said they didn’t want the pieces back. When a Chinese rocket carrying a Western-owned communications satellite blew up shortly after launch, the Chinese carefully collected all the pieces and tried to examine them before turning them back, but the most sensitive items were charred and cracked beyond recognition. The probability of gaining useful information from the crash is low, as the best technology would have to survive reentry and the debris would have to fall in an opponent-controlled area. The probability of surviving reentry and landing in a hostile controlled area are too low to explain the decision to shoot down.

4. It all comes back to the dinosaurs. This is a test to crush a killer asteroid, right?

A 200-foot wide meteorite that struck Tunguska Siberia in 1908 had the effect of a nuclear explosion (without the radiation aftereffects). If there was warning that a similar event was about to occur over a populated area, it would be nice to have the ability to stop it. It’s not worth spending much time worrying about being hit by asteroids, however, or even by satellites, but having spent all that money on missile defense, it’s nice that it finally has some practical use.

Twin Citians (or mere visitors) have the best chance of seeing USA 193 tonight at 6:36:38 (Woodbury time) when it appears 10 degrees above the west southwest horizon, reaches 52 degrees above the northwest sky at 6:38:48 p.m., and then disappears at 6:40:47, when it’s 12 degrees above the northeast horizon.

Some minutes later, the lunar eclipse begins. By the way, if you have a spiffy camera set up to record it, send me some images and I’ll post them here tonight.

  • Mac Wilson

    Awesome, Bob. Just awesome :)

    I think the most likely scenario is a combination of 1 and 3.