A rogue Chinese spy satellite has careered out of control and will crash to Earth within the next few weeks from an orbit that takes it over the British Isles.
The one-ton satellite, which passes over Britain and Ireland four or five times a day, will turn into a fireball and hurtle to Earth some time in the first two weeks of March, according to the scientists tracking it. They will be unable to predict where it will strike until a few days beforehand.
"It would cause devastation if it landed in a built-up area," said Professor Alan Johnstone of the Mullard Space Science Laboratories at University College London. "They do not know where it is going to land and they cannot do anything to regain control. It could come down anywhere and its orbit takes it over some of the Earth's most populated areas."
Unlike most satellites, FSW1 is designed to withstand the 1,200C of heat generated around its hull by re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere at 18,000 mph. It could still be travelling at well over a 1,000 mph when it hits the surface.
The Chinese launched FSW1 in October 1993. It was due to spend just a few days photographing Earth from space, after which it should have jettisoned a module containing its cameras and other equipment and returned to Earth with the films.
Western space scientists believe the satellite's controllers activated its rockets at the wrong moment, sending the re-entry module into an unstable elliptical orbit. It now swings around the Earth every 100 minutes, dipping into the upper atmosphere at its closest approach at 100 miles above the Earth, then spinning 2,000 miles into outer space before starting its return journey. Dr. Richard Crowther, a senior scientist at the Defence Research Agency, an arm of the Ministry of Defence at Farnborough, Hampshire, said the rogue satellite was being kept under close surveillance. "It spends much more time over areas of high latitude, which includes the UK, northern Europe and north America, so that is probably where it will land," he said.
Andrew Wilson, the editor of Jane's Space Directory, has followed the fate of FSW1 ever since the Chinese lost control of it. "The chances are it will fall in the ocean, simply because it covers 70% of the Earth's surface, but we have to be cautious. Its orbit also takes it over a huge part of the world's population."
Some western space scientists have spent months trying to work out whether FSW1 will survive the impact. They believe that obtaining the films it contains would be an intelligence coup, showing what the Chinese were spying on and how much they were able to see. The chances, however, could be slim; FSW1 is a primitive craft by modern standards, so primitive that, according to Jane's, its heat shield is made from oak planks.
"It may survive the trip through the atmosphere, but the impact with the surface will almost certainly reduce it to fragments," said one scientist.
Nick Johnson, a specialist in space debris and obsolete satellites who works as a consultant with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), said it would leave a crater up to 30ft wide and 20ft deep. "The chances of it hitting a built-up area are, however, very low," he said.
Most of the tracking has been done by the United States Space Command (UNSC) in Colorado Springs, which follows nearly 9,000 orbiting man-made objects through 11 radar stations around the world. Its main aim is to prevent their re-entry being mistaken for ballistic missile warheads, thus triggering a nuclear alert, but it also provides foreign governments with an early warning service. Its scientists hope to be able to give several days' warning of where FSW1 will crash-land.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jim House, UNSC's chief of space operations, said the satellite's orbit was already deteriorating daily. "Last Monday it came within 99 miles of Earth, but by Friday that had decreased to 96 miles. It is suffering increasing drag from the upper atmosphere, which will pull it down even faster."
Several orbiting objects have plunged to Earth. In 1978 there were worldwide protests when the Soviets' nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 satellite came down over northern Canada, blazing a trail of radioactive debris across the tundra.
In 1979, 20 tons of the American Skylab station smashed into the Australian outback. Large chunks of the Russian Salyut 7 space station also crashed into South American forests, starting several fires. One piece was reported to have fallen into the back garden of a house where an Argentine woman was doing her ironing.
So far, however, there are no known human victims of space debris and the only confirmed casualty was a cow in Cuba that was killed outright by a falling rocket motor in the mid-1960s.
Crowther said: "There's not much reason for anyone to worry. We think that people stand slightly more chance of winning the lottery than of being hit by this satellite."
Original file name: CNI - Chinese Satellite 2.8
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