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The Spy Who Fell to Earth

Dec 2, 2017
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Sometime in late February or early March a disabled U.S. spy satellite is expected to plunge to earth, creating a potential danger from falling debris.

Word of the satellite’s projected return–and the related hazards–was announced Saturday by administration officials. A spokesman for the National Security Council said that “appropriate government agencies” are monitoring the situation. At this point, it’s impossible to tell where remnants of the satellite might land, or serious the danger from debris might be posed.

According to The New York Times, the satellite in question is believed to be an experimental imagery bird, launched from Vandenburg AFB, California in December 2006, on board a Delta II rocket. Soon after it reached orbit, ground controllers lost the ability to control the satellite, and were never able to reestablish communications.

Described as “deaf, but not necessarily dead,” the returning satellite is prompting concerns for three reasons. First, there’s the outside chance that the satellite’s large fuel tank, filled with hydrazine, might survive reentry. If that happens, the hydrazine would pose a toxic hazard to anyone exposed to it on the ground. The satellite may also contain beryllium, a toxin that is used in optical components on spy satellites.

Additionally, there are worries about sensitive technology falling into the wrong hands, if satellite wreckage lands in the wrong area. And finally, there’s the prospect of debris causing injuries or damage, if it lands in a populated area..

We should emphasize that all of these scenarios are considered extremely remote. With water covering most of the earth’s surface, there’s a good chance that any wreckage that survives re-entry will fall into one of the world’s oceans.

The spy satellite’s demise should not have any impact on U.S. collection capabilities. With the loss of communications–and the inability of controllers to guide it–the satellite never became part of the U.S. surveillance constellation.

Loss of the imagery bird was one of a series of setbacks that have plagued America’s spy satellite programs in recent years. Last June, the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell, cancelled the next generation of a “stealth” satellite program, known publicly as “Misty.” Officials familiar with the decision said it was prompted by spiraling costs.

Two years earlier, the intelligence community terminated another satellite effort, dubbed Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) for similar reasons. Aimed at developing smaller and cheaper overhead platforms, the program (run by Boeing) ran into technical problems and cost overruns before being scrubbed. After Boeing lost the contract, the program was shifted to Lockheed, which was asked to restart production of an existing spy satellite design, with upgrades.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, McConnell bemoaned the state of the American satellite industry, noting that European companies can often build systems faster and cheaper. By comparison, a new U.S. spy satellite–though admittedly much more complex–can take a decade (and billions of dollars) to develop.

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