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Wayward Satellites
17 February 2008


I've known my best friend since junior high.  We both had paper routes and on Sunday mornings, after delivering our papers, we'd often ride our bikes across town to the donut shop where we'd each buy a dozen donuts.  On the way home, while enjoying the buzz from all the sugar, we'd dream of becoming fighter pilots or astronauts or maybe spies like James Bond.

I haven't made it into space yet but I'm still happy with my career choices.  My fascination with computers led me to a career as a computer game programmer followed by my crazy decision to become a Kona coffee farmer.  My friend went to the Naval academy and has a successful career in the Navy.  His degrees are in Aerospace Engineering and I like to call him a rocket scientist although he's closer to James Bond than he is to a nerdy scientist.  For awhile he was seriously considering becoming an astronaut but is currently working for the NRO instead.

NRO For those of you that have never heard of the NRO, it's the National Reconnaissance Office.  They're the government organization with all of the spy satellites.  My friend is actually in charge of spy satellites and other fun stuff like that.  He won't tell me much about his job because says that if he told me then he'd have to kill me.  I suspect he's exaggerating a bit.

One time he was carrying some secret spy-type information in a briefcase while on an official business trip and was randomly selected for security screening at the airport.  When the security guard said he needed to see what was in the briefcase my friend said "No you don't" and produced the appropriate paperwork.  The security guards tried to argue the point but in the end the briefcase stayed shut.

USA193 There is a story in the news right now about a defective spy satellite that the Navy plans to shoot down with a missile.  The official reason is to avoid possible contamination from the toxic hydrazine on board.  Hydrazine is nothing but rocket fuel.  It is indeed toxic if you are exposed to enough of it.  It is also very explosive so I can't imagine any of it surviving a fiery descent through the atmosphere.  Even if an intact fuel tank did reach Earth, it is estimated that the toxic plume would extend no more than 200 yards or so.  If I see it, I'll be sure to take pictures from 201 yards.

Lottie It seems more likely to me that this missile shot is a response to a missile test China performed last year but I don't know all the facts so I can only speculate.  The local news here in Hawaii is making a big deal of the whole thing because they say we may be able to see the missile which will be launched from a cruiser in Pearl Harbor.  I'm guessing that what the silly reporters mean to say is that the USS Lake Erie cruiser is based in Pearl Harbor but won't actually launch the missile while docked in port.  Saying the ship will be far out at sea isn't as dramatic of a headline.

The idea of a bus sized satellite being shot down and plummeting to Earth sure does make a dramatic news story.  The reality is a little less theatrical.  You can't really 'shoot down' a satellite.  In order to remove something from orbit, you have to remove its momentum.  The most you can do with a missile is break the satellite it into smaller pieces which are more likely to burn up when they finally re-enter the atmosphere.

Space debris falls to Earth all the time.  The only verified impact with a human was in 1997 when an Oklahoma woman felt a tap on her shoulder then found a piece of charred metal from a spent rocket.  She was not injured.

Most space junk never makes it through the atmosphere and the stuff that does usually falls in the ocean.  When a satellite is brought down on purpose it is aimed to land in the ocean.  Even though Hawaii is in the middle of the ocean, it is a very big ocean and chances are extremely slim that anything would land anywhere near our Kona coffee farm.

The spy satellite in question was launched in December 2006.  Hmm, I think my friend was working at the NRO during December 2006.  Apparently the satellite's computer failed shortly after launch.  I told my friend that if he needs help debugging any software, I'm available and I won't charge the NRO much.  I also told him that if any of my coffee trees are damaged by toxic space debris, I'll be sure to send him a bill.  Who knows, maybe this whole satellite thing is my friend's way of getting back at me for the time I ate his donuts.


Update:  The missiles were fired and the satellite was destroyed.  The satellite pieces re-entered the atmosphere just as the intact satellite would have on it's own.  Nobody was hit by falling debris, nobody was poisoned by toxic rocket fuel.  Now that the sky is no longer falling I suppose I should get back to work.

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