back to article Spy satellite to slam Earthside

A large US spy satellite has lost power and could hit the Earth in late February or March, government officials have said. The satellite, which is now out of control, could contain hazardous materials, and it's unknown where on our planet it might come down. Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council said …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Mad Dog

    Hazardous materials?!

    WTF are "hazardous materials" doing on a spy satellite in the first place?

  2. Ishkandar

    Will God be kind enough to direct this to land on No. 10...

    ...just when he's back from his junkets ??

    Please God; I'll even eat up all my spinach from now on !!

  3. Simon
    Black Helicopters

    Andromeda Strain

    Someone better initiate WILDFIRE then...

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Questions, questions...

    Is it a Keyhole, Lacrosse or Sigint bird?

    Why does it contain material used as a moderator or neutron source?

    Maybe there is some nastier stuff inside.

    Stuff you need to be stealthy while still having enough power to be useful...

    Have the French already pointed their huge SAR on it and taken some pictures?

    Wow, my first and useless Register comment. Being proud to join the crazy folks here... ;-)

  5. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

    A singular disingenuousness.

    Rather lacking in facts that article of yours.

    "It's estimated that the spacecraft weighs about 20,000lb - roughly the size of a small bus - and might contain beryllium: a light metal with a high melting point that's used in the defence and aerospace industries."

    It might weigh about 200,000 lb and contain plutonium in the beryllium. Or are we supposed to believe the real threat is from beryllium that was too durable to ionise?

    So who do we sue if it turns out that the beryllium was used as open ended (weapons grade) plutonium cases?

    There aught to be a democratic result oriented icon for stories like this where radioactive fall out and the like is just as likely to drop on London and Birmingham as it is on North Wales or some Twatt in Orkney.

    (Thinks) Should I include a link for that last bit? (Stops thinking and hits Enter.)

  6. Simon Ball
    Black Helicopters


    I doubt there's much risk of giving anything away. Unless they've suffered a catastrophic malfunction, it's probably one of the KH-12 photo-recon or Lacrosse radar-recon satellites launched in the early nineties that's come to the end of its operational life. After fifteen years I doubt there's much there that's ultra-classified. The KH-12 is little more than a downwards pointing Hubble Space Telescope and there's nothing particularly secret about synthetic aperture radar these days. If there's anything secret it'll be in the instrument package, and that is highly unlikely to survive re-entry. It's usually heavy and robust things like pressure vessels or bits of the space frame that reach the ground.

    As for toxic materials - I doubt it's beryllium they're concerned about.

    More likely there's still some hydrazine left in the station-keeping thrusters. Hydrazine is very, very nasty stuff.

  7. Tom Handy

    Get the friggin' laser

    Might make some good real world target practise for the 747 with the nose mounted laser.

  8. Anonymous John

    Coat please

    I'm going out to buy a crash helmet.

  9. dervheid

    Spys 'R' Us

    It'll have more missiles tracking it than any other object known. No way will the good ol' US of A allow as much as a single rivet from that to come into "enemy" hands. If it don't fry coming into the atmosphere, it'll be 'fried' pretty damn soon after.

    Hard hats all round to go with the coats

  10. Adam Foxton

    Did anyone else...

    ... read that as "Hazardous materials not known on our planet"?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pedantic response

    Shouldn't that be "It's estimated that the spacecraft weighs about 20,000lb *and is* roughly the size of a small bus"? I imagine a small bus at rush hour in London would weigh far more than a small bus running into Bradford at 5am on a weekend, for instance.

    Sorry, that might be somewhat obscure to someone whose standard measurement of weight is lbs. Weight and size are not the same!

  12. Neil

    Rumours that

    it will "accidentally" land on Iran have yet to be confirmed.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    @hazardous materials

    Most satellites are powered on plutonium batteries anyway, far more dangerous than beryllium. The Apollo missions were fuelled by it afterall and it is the only thing that can keep them powered to their level after so long.

    I think God if he existed should aim it at the white house, Number 10 is their ineffecient lap dog afterall.

  14. Steven

    I for one..

    ...welcome our flaming molten beryllium, hydrazine snorting overlords


  15. Chris Hamilton

    I just know....

    That will be the one time that my TomTom can actually find the damn satellite....

    When it lands on top of my car!

  16. Chris Bradshaw

    target practice

    If they say they can shoot down an incoming ICBM with a few minutes warning and tracking data, why can't they shoot down a satellite with weeks of warning and lots of trajectory data? And they presumably have time to take a few shots, on the off chance that they miss it....

    Or they could ask the Chinese to do it..

    The Mao jacket please...

  17. Tim Spence


    It is hydrazine - even the BBC mentioned that when this story was published yesterday.

  18. JP

    How/why wouldn't they know...

    "In 2002, officials believe debris from a 7,000lb science satellite smacked into the Earth's atmosphere and rained down over the Persian Gulf"

    They couldn't be sure because the "Made in Taiwan" sticker burned up on re-entry I guess

  19. Eric Werme
    IT Angle

    Sigh. Line 1 of title is okay, Line 2 - Andromedra Strain - is bogus

    Hey, the NY Times headline said the satellite _may_ hit Earth. In fact, it can't miss.

    AFAIK, spy satellites don't carry bacteria or viruses. (Unless they're powered by Windoze. Sorry.)

    Apparently the satellite is a new design launched in 2006 and lost communications soon thereafter.

    Beryllium is used to stiffen optical assemblies. Being a light metal, I imagine it's used in a lot of satellites. It does have hydrazine propellant that hasn't been used, that would be a bit of an issue if the tank survives reentry.

    Bringing it down by blowing it up is is pointless. If the satellite explodes, parts will gain kinetic energy an climb to a higher apogee, parts will lose kinetic energy and quickly reenter. It's currently in a 100 mile circular orbit, and the perigee will remain 100 miles so the pieces will still come down. If it looks like it might land in Russia or China, then that might warrant some "pre-reentry damage" efforts. To keep it in orbit requires two boosts, e.g. one to raise the apogee and when it reaches another to raise the perigee. Space science to be sure, but really just high school physics.

  20. Mike Richards


    (Atomic number 4) is extremely light, strong over a wide range of temperatures, nonmagnetic and corrosion resistant making it ideal for satellites and aerospace applications. It is either used pure or alloyed, especially with copper. Satellites can use beryllium alloys in their structure, or sometimes in their engines.

    The serious downside of beryllium is that many of its compounds are extraordinarily toxic, especially when ingested (interestingly, many beryllium compounds are very sweet - at least briefly). It's a top-notch carcinogen and also causes an extreme allergic lung reaction called beryllosis. For this reason, there aren't many elderly experts in the study of beryllium.

  21. Kevin Campbell


    my tinfoil-lined colander will protect me, right? (scurries to tinfoil-line athletic supporter, just in case...)

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    re: @Hazardous materials...

    Plutonium batteries? Um, where were you? The Apollo missions were powered by fuel cells, NOT plutonium. Geez, a simple web search would confirm that, or even watching Apollo13 for f*cks sake... Now some satellites (may) have nuclear reactors, and this may be the case for this one. Plutonium (or any radioisotope) I think would be most hazardous if it burned up in the atmosphere, causing a trail of extremely toxic particles to 'fall out' over God knows where. And plutonium has a looong half-life. Or it may be that the beryllium was just used as part of the structural shell, being as it is light and strong, just the thing for spacecraft hulls. Unfortunately, beryllium is also toxic.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    Plutonium / Satellite from 2006

    I think that they lost a next generation stealthy spy satellite shortly after insertion into orbit in 2006.

    So if we are talking about this satellite, it makes sense to assume that there is some Plutonium on board.

    Being stealthy with some shiny solar panels wouldn't be that easy. So there are probably some thermoelectric generators on board, is not even worse. The Soviets e.g. used nuclear reactors to power their Kosmos spy sattellites. Some time the ejection of the highly radioactive core into a higher "cemetery orbit" failed and it messed up Greenland...

  24. Anonymous Coward


    "could contain hazardous materials"

    Surely the people who designed, built and sent the thing up into orbit would have some sort of clue what materials it contains?

    Idiots, the lot of them.

  25. Gordon

    beryllium is TOXIC?

    So holding those beryllium-copper washers in my mouth whilst assembling scientific instruments a few years ago probably wasn't the sharpest move ever, then?

    If I remember my science, Hydrazine is highly volatile, so quite unlikely to survive re-entry. Less likely than beryllium, plutonium or uranium, anyways.

  26. Peter Batten
    Thumb Up

    It came from Space...

    Ah The Andromeda Strain :)

    "The purpose of Scoop was to find new biological weapons in outer space, and then use Wildfire to develop them! " Incoming!!!

  27. Curtis W. Rendon

    Not a NASA bird

    We have several agencies that launch and control birds. The spy satellite in question is not a NASA bird, but a NSA one, and launched via an Air Force booster...

  28. Morely Dotes

    Warning: Contains Actual Science

    Unlike this article...

    "Could contain hazardous materials: just like The Andromeda Strain"

    The biological invaders in _The Andromeda Strain_ were of extraterrestrial origin, and hitched a ride to Earth on a space probe which went far beyond Earth orbit. The science content in that book/movie was, like all of Michael Crichton's work, purest fantasy, and requires an extreme effort of willful suspension of disbelief (in other words, only a moron would believe any of it was real science).

    Anything that's on the satellite was on it when it was launched; it's extremely unlikely (on the order of the same likelihood as sainthood for George W. Bush) that there were any extraterrestrial organisms launched with that satellite.

    The hazardous materials in question here will be oxides of beryllium, and residues of hydrazine fuel. Well, there's also the remote possibility of getting conked on the noggin by debris moving at a respectable speed, but a chicken feather moving that fast would be "hazardous."

    I chose the alien to represent the pop-sci-fi quality of the El Reg article.

  29. Herby

    On Plutonium batteries...

    Yes, Apollo DID have plutonium batteries. They were used to power the science pack that was left on the moon. These are nice simple things that use the heat of decay to warm up a thermocouple. Since Plutonium is an Alpha (He without electrons) emitter, it is easily shielded (almost paper will do). These devices are used for sustained power requirements that have a very small load. The main power source for Apollo WAS a fuel cell, as they needed quite a bit of power for a shorter (1 week or so) time. The spy satellites need power over a longer period, and solar panels can do the job, but nuclear batteries are a more compact design. The other problem is that solar panels only give power half the time (daylight), so you need something to sustain the other half, which usually wears out.

    In remote places, nuclear batteries are used, but they are usually Uranium based, and need LOTS of shielding and weigh TONs (been there, done that!). Just as a note, the way these things are shielded, you can sit on top of them with no effect (we left a dosimeter there for a couple of days and it didn't even register!).

  30. Rick Brasche

    and it's really just an "accident"

    when this thing drops on San Francisco or Hollywood! Really!

    hey, a guy can dream, right! I'd be able to see the impact from the hills here:)

  31. oldfartuk
    Thumb Down


    Some batteries used in orbit are Sodium/Uranium cells. Wait till that hits the salt spray.....

  32. heystoopid
    Paris Hilton


    Although it is a shame in one aspect that NORAD complete with satellite tracking cameras along with sophisticated synthetic billboard radars that can track something the size of a baseball in orbit and along with access to the best scientific orbital brains one can muster at JPL always seem to fall some two to three thousand kilometres short of the actual target impact site where as in one instance children with an old Acorn Atom Computer crunching the numbers and a couple of simple amateur telescopes track sightings were able to give a far more accurate picture that year !

    Me thinks they is up to the usual red herrings and there is more afoot then meets the eye about what is actually on board this large bus sized object they don't want to talk about !

    Since all US military surveillance satellites are operational both day and night logic dictates they have a number of cameras (film canister and digital) optimised for various light bands and a big synthetic radar image device to see through storm clouds amongst other things as well which means a big power supply similar to that used by the Russians on their equivalent Cosmos Spy babies like the one that fell on Canada in 1978 .

    As with all public announcements issued by any US military or government source since the end of the Korean War and in the 21st Century where the age of propaganda rules thus far , one always has to view with cynical eyes that they are only telling at best 1% of what we should really know at any one time !

    At least Paris knows more then 1% of something ?

  33. Rich

    Nothing we haven't already got

    There are around 10^18 kilos of Be in the earths crust, and 10^9 kilos in the oceans. I doubt a few kilos of satellite will make much difference.

    Also, hydrazine is unstable - that's why it's used as rocket fuel. It isn't going to survive reentry in a spaceship that isn't designed to reenter the atmosphere (no heat shields).

    Plutonium is more of a problem, but the RTG *is* designed to re-enter and either sink in the ocean or be recovered.

  34. Tim J

    Stop worrying...

    As fans of surveillance technologies always say - if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.

  35. Anonymous Coward


    Given the numerous references to uranium and plutonium elsewhere on this page, by “kilo” do you mean kilotons?

  36. Anonymous Coward

    Don't breath any

    of the smoke from melted beryllium. No, just having beryllium in your mouth is not enough, some dental work contains beryllium it's only when it's melted and the fumes come up, but it's pretty much your ass if you breath it in look it up if you don't believe me. My brother used to cast beryllium one day they told him about it, just before they banned it . I don't know if reentry is enough to melt it or keep it hot long enough it's pretty high temperature stuff but I would wait till the hole stopped smoking before I went to see about it.

  37. Mother Hubbard

    We are all made of SpySats, not Stars

    Do searches, be afraid, you can measure the affects of previous satellite burn-ups in each and every one of us;


    "2.10 SNAP-9A RE-ENTRY

    Satellite nuclear auxiliary power (or `SNAP') units utilize the decay heat of radionuclides to supply electrical energy for space satellite equipment. The re-entry of a navigational satellite containing such an isotopic power unit (known as SNAP 9A) occurred on 21 April 1964, over the Indian Ocean, after failure to attain orbital velocity. The heat of re-entry caused volatilization of the SNAP 9A device which contained 629 TBq of 238Pu. The deposition of around 95 per cent of the plutonium intially injected was estimated to have occurred by the end of 1970. The device's re-entry resulted in a 50 year dose commitment of approximately 0.36 Sv to the respiratory lymph nodes of the world's population due to exposure between 1961 and 1968 (Shleien et al., 1970)."


    "1964, April 21: US Navy 5BN-3 Transit navigation satellite, carrying a SNAP 9-A RTG powered by 2.2 lb of plutonium-238, failed to achieve orbit and the RTG disintegrated in the atmosphere at an altitude of 50 km. It sprinkled radioactive particles of plutonium over a wide area of the southern hemisphere, a fact confirmed by soil samples taken from 65 sites around the world between October 1970 and January 1971. The 17,000 curies of plutonium-238 released by this one accident increased the total world environmental burden of plutonium, principally from atmospheric weapons tests, by about 4 per cent.

    1968, May 18: following a launch failure, a US Nimbus B-1 weather satellite was aborted and its two SNAP-19A RTGs fell into the Santa Barbara Channel, off southern California. They were recovered intact after a five-month search.

    1970, April 17: as part of the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13, the lunar module, carrying a SNAP-27 plutonium power supply, was jettisoned at 18,000 km over the South Pacific. It splashed down near the island of Tonga. It was never recovered but US officials claim that radiation levels in the area indicate that no plutonium has been released."

    And that's just the (publicly acknowledged) American disasters. Oh yeah, cancer is a complete mystery .. where could it possibly be coming from ..

    Since I first read about this I had assumed, despite the 2006 references, that this was the Spy Sat that was dumped in the wrong orbit;

  38. Waldo

    Kremlin.....Watch this space

    I guess the Russian Government will be scouring e-Bay in a few month for "unwanted electronic trophies" LOL

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Nothing we haven't already got

    "There are around 10^18 kilos of Be in the earths crust, and 10^9 kilos in the oceans. I doubt a few kilos of satellite will make much difference."

    Dude, where'd you think the material in the satellite came from in the first place?

This topic is closed for new posts.

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022