In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space
Michael Krepon, Henry L. Stimson Center
A satellite that could have been used to survey damage from disasters now has the potential of causing one.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads the U.S. Northern Command, said an out-of-control spy satellite, estimated to be about the size of a school bus -- is falling to Earth and is expected to land in late February or early March – possibly somewhere on this continent.
“We're aware that this satellite is out there,” Renuart said. “We're aware it is a fairly substantial size. And we know there is at least some percentage that it could land on ground as opposed to in the water. As it looks like it might re-enter into the North American area, then the U.S. military along with the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will either have to deal with the impact or assist Canadian or Mexican authorities.”
In an attempt to avoid such a situation, Gen. James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced last week that a modified version of the Aegis Sea-Based Missile Defense system will be used in an attempt to intercept the falling U.S. satellite and destroy it before it hits the earth.
President George Bush approved the attempt, military officials said, because the satellite’s fuel tank might survive a crash and spread the rocket fuel, hydrazine, possibly endangering humans. The shoot-down attempt is expected to occur on Thursday.
The satellite, typically used to gather visual information about adversarial governments and terror groups and to survey damage from hurricanes, fires and other natural disasters, was launched in December 2006. However, it lost power and its central computer system failed shortly after take-off.
Unfortunately, if the missile intercept is not successful, it will be difficult to predict where the point of impact will be until the satellite falls to about 59 miles above the Earth and enters the atmosphere. It will then begin to burn up, with flares visible from the ground, said Ted Molczan, a Canadian satellite tracker. From that point on, he said, it will take about 30 minutes to fall.
According to Chuck May, the manager of the Planning and Disaster Recover Branch of Missouri State Emergency Management (SEMA), this short notice would make it next to impossible to warn people of the impending danger.
“If NASA or Department of Defense officials learned that chunks of the satellite were going to hit anywhere in the U.S., of course, they would do what they could to notify people, but obviously it would all tie down to how much warning we had,” he said. “With only 30 minutes notice, I don’t know what could be done. If county or law enforcement officials could be notified in time to warn people, they would. But there are so many ‘ifs,’ it’s hard to say exactly what measures could be taken.”
The military plan to attempt to intercept the satellite has been hailed by advocates of missile defense systems as a prime example of the peaceful benefits of the weapons. “The investment and the proven technology of our country's missile defense systems has given our nation and our military an option which it never had before to protect human life globally from falling objects from space,” said Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. “Our country's investment and leadership internationally in Missile Defense provides global options that make our world a safer place,” he added.
But the plan has drawn criticism from those who see it as a way to justify anti-satellite missile systems. "In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space," Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, told the Washington Post. "There has to be another reason behind this.”
However, if the missile is not able to shoot down the satellite and it actually hits a populated area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and disaster response organizations may have to respond.
“With a couple exceptions, emergency response plans are set up to respond to all hazards. The exceptions would be catastrophic events that are area specific – in Missouri we have additional plans in the event of a New Madrid fault quake; Florida’s plans include hurricane response. However, no one at either the state or federal level has developed anything specifically dealing with incoming asteroids or other items falling from the sky,” May said.
Matt Hackworth, communications officer with Church World Service, a relief ministry umbrella for 35 Protestant, orthodox and Anglican denominations, said his group prepares for disasters of every kind.
“Our job is to respond to disasters of any kind – natural or technological. We do have measures in place to work remotely in case New York, our headquarters, was impacted. But we aren’t exactly ‘disaster specific.’
“Besides, look at Greensburg, Kansas. Their claim to fame was that they were hit by a meteorite. They weren’t obliterated by an asteroid, but instead by a tornado.”
Asteroids have, however, done their share of damage. In 1908, an asteroid exploded in the air above Siberia, flattening thousands of square miles of forest. More than 150 meteor crashes have carved out craters in Arizona, Missouri and on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They continue to keep sky watchers glued to their telescopes.
In the past few years, scientists and astronomers had been keeping a close eye on two asteroids in particular – one named 1997 XF11 and on another dubbed 2004 MN4.
In 1998, XF11 was originally thought to be on a collision course with Earth with a direct hit expected on Oct. 26, 2028. However, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has closely monitored its orbits over the past 10 years, now estimates XF11’s passage at 591,000 miles away or about 2.5 times farther than the moon.
In December 2004, scientists set the odds at 1 in 37 that the giant space rock 2004 MN4 would slam into earth on April 13, 2029. And while the asteroid will still be making a close brush, at less than 30,000 miles, scientists said additional observations had reduced the chance of impact to zero.
Although scientists with the NASA’s Near Earth Object Program report they are not concerned about the two asteroids, or any of the other 108 on the watch list of “potentially hazardous objects,” they, along with the U.S. Space Command and the Department of Defense, continue to refine a process that will allow them to gather and analyze date regarding impending Earth impacts from asteroids or comets, assess possible damage stemming from such an impact and to notify top officials. They are expected to also evaluate possible evacuations or emergency preparations.
In the meantime, scientists agree that it is only a matter of time before another comet hits home.
“It's like a game of cosmic darts,” said astronomer Clark Chapman on the PBS show Nova. “It could just as likely happen tomorrow as some day 300,000 years from now.”
And if falling satellites and asteroids aren’t enough to keep you awake at night, scientists are looking upward, waiting and watching for the next major solar storm, which has the potential of wiping out all communications.
At more than 869,919 miles wide, the sun makes up approximately 99.86 percent of the mass of the entire solar system. The total energy radiated by the sun averages 383 billion trillion kilowatts, the amount of energy generated by the explosion of 100 billion tons of TNT every second.
However, the energy released by the sun is not always constant. Once in a while, the sun releases an even larger amount of energy with intense magnetic fields in the form of a solar flare – an explosive burst of hot gases.
In 1859, solar observers noted the development of numerous sunspots on the sun's surface. What followed was an explosive release of magnetically charged energy that reached the earth’s surface in hours. The magnetic fields, in direct opposition with the earth’s magnetic fields, were so intense that there were severe interruptions of communications systems. Telegraph wires were burned to a crisp and created wildfires as they dropped to the ground.
Since that time, other solar storms have caused major malfunctions to communications satellites and affected television, radio and telephone signals.
Hackworth said such an event, on the back of another disaster, could be disastrous to organizations that rely on communications.
“Can you imagine a disaster where you couldn’t make a conference call to coordinate the response? The disaster world relies on communication. More and more we rely on technology to assist us in our work. If we had a major breakdown in communications, whether it be from huge solar flares or from an EMP bomb, we would have massive problems,” he said.
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