US to shoot down dead spy satellite: Why?

This rocket took the satellite up in December, and now it's falling back down again | Image: CNN / U.S. Air Force It’s the size of a bus, weighs 5000 pounds and contains gallons of the highly toxic rocket fuel hydrazine. And until recently it could well have landed in your back yard in a few weeks time.

But thanks to a U.S. government decision, a dead spy satellite that was due to hit Earth sometime in the next few weeks will now be blasted to pieces by a missile, smashing it into millions of tiny pieces that should burn safely up in the atmosphere. Click here for more detailed background on the dead satellite.

However, many people, both professional analysts and freelance bloggers, say the real motive for shooting it down is to either test out new missile technology or to stop U.S. defense secrets being leaked, should it return safely to land.

A satellite (unrelated to the one going to be shot down) | Image: UC Berkeley The government has used the ‘excuse’ that it is necessary to stop the dangerous hydrazine fuel on board the satellite causing anyone any harm – this is also a very valid point, so let’s take a look at the safety risks of hydrazine:

  • If humans are exposed to hydrazine (chemical formula N2H4), they can suffer the usual irritant reactions – eye irritation, dizziness, nausea, etc.
  • However, it can also cause damage to the liver, kidneys and Central Nervous System
  • It is also corrosive, so could burn your skin away
  • Rodents exposed to hydrazine have an increased chance of developing tumors/cancer

OK, so hydrazine looks pretty toxic. But what would the chance have been of it smashing through your roof? Many estimates say there was around a 1% chance it would have landed in a populated area, and even then most of the satellite would have burned up in the atmosphere, leaving only the hydrazine and some scraps of metal to come to the ground. The hydrazine may well have stayed locked up in its container anyway.

I think shooting the satellite down is the best option, but I’d be really interested to hear your views too. Is it just a big government cover-up? What do you think? Post your comments below.

CNN has done an interesting analysis here.

UPDATE: The Space Shuttle will be under no danger from the satellite debris, as it will not be blown up until after the Shuttle returns to Earth Wednesday.

The mission will cost between $40 and $60 million (Click here for details).

Click here for an excellent interactive explainer detailing the satellite shoot-down mission, including a video animation

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8 Responses

  1. Oh pa leeeeze. Last month the reports said the satellite was 10,000 pounds. Now suddenly it’s 5,000 pounds. Last month they asked us to believe they didn’t know how big the satellite was and they didn’t know if there was any toxic stuff onboard.

    These guys couldn’t tell us the truth if it was pinned on their noses and drawing blood.

    Suddenly the government is worried about the loss of human life?

    I doubt that.

  2. Lauren, I can see what you’re saying, and I don’t doubt that the government was probably more eager than it might have been to shoot down the satellite because it wants to test out new missile technology.

    However, imagine if the satellite had landed in, say, Russia, and injured loads of people with the hydrazine. It would significantly reduce what little remains of America’s credibility on the international stage.

  3. I think shooting it down has nothing to do with public safety. Regular old gasoline can cause the same health effects, less the skin burns.

    You seem to have a typo. it will cost 60 Million not billion.
    Cheers.

  4. Oops… that was a pretty major typo. Sorry to anyone who got the wrong impression – GeologyJoe is indeed correct that the mission will cost between 40 and 60 MILLION dollars, not billion. I’ve corrected the post.

    Thanks for telling me!

    As for the hydrazine, check out my last comment on this page. I still maintain what I wrote there.

  5. re: “It would significantly reduce what little remains of America’s credibility on the international stage.”

    The US strongly criticized China when they did the exact same thing one year ago though. Perhaps shooting it down would actually mean more lost credibility?

    Interesting blog by the way – just found you from this NG link:
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/02/080220-toxic-satellite.html

  6. Would’nt the Fuel burn up when the satelite reenters the atmosphere, or does Hydrazine need a catalyst or other reactant than oxygen to combust?

    They use this fuel to fly military jets, where’s the concern then?

    I think they want to make sure it comes down in tiny pieces so our inteligence gathering secrets stay that way. Which is fine with me, but just say that if that is the case.

  7. David: I can see your point, but the main problem with China’s shootdown was that it was so badly done. Millions of dangerous pieces of satellite were left floating around when the Chinese destroyed their satellite, whereas the U.S. shootdown was relatively clean.

    I’m glad you like my blog – thanks! 🙂

    Neil: The hydrazine would likely not have burnt up if the satellite had come down naturally because it was in a strong metal container. This could then have developed a leak or a hole when it hit the ground, releasing the toxic hydrazine.

  8. […] public links >> n2h4 US to shoot down dead spy satellite: Why? Saved by payasa1997 on Fri 10-10-2008 US to shoot down dead spy satellite: Why? Saved by […]

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