WASHINGTON - An unresponsive United States reconnaissance satellite is in an uncontrolled, decaying orbit and will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in late February or early March.
According to Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, “Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation.”
The satellite is out-of-control, and therefore there is no possibility to guide it to re-entry over an ocean or unpopulated area. On the one hand, since most of the earth’s surface is water or unpopulated, death or property loss due to any falling fragments, which may result from the satellite entering the atmosphere, is statistically unlikely. On the other hand, it cannot be ruled out entirely. It is currently unclear as to where the satellite will re-enter, and whether any debris will survive atmospheric re-entry. The mass of the satellite is unknown.
“Numerous satellites over the years have come out of orbit and fallen harmlessly. We are looking at potential options to mitigate any possible damage this satellite may cause,” said Johndroe.
Concerns have also been raised that some materials used in the satellite’s construction could be hazardous if they reach the ground. The satellite contains quantities of toxic hydrazine fuel, which is used for maneuvering, although this is likely to burn up on re-entry. Some of the optics aboard the satellite may contain beryllium, which is also toxic.
As the satellite was part of a classified U.S. military program, no other details, including its name, have been made public. The only such satellite which is publicly known to be out of control is identified by the codenames USA-193 and NRO L-21. It was launched in December 2006, by a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Ground controllers lost contact with the USA-193 satellite shortly after it reached orbit.
Amateur observers have been tracking USA-193 for some time, and believe that its orbit is decaying, however it is unclear whether USA-193 is the satellite in question.