Doomed Spy Satellite Overhead This Month


USA 193, a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite (not something you see flying over the house every day), is currently circling the earth in a low orbit, appearing overhead at night as bright as a first- or second-magnitude star.

Spaceweather has more details.

You can use Heavens-Above, a website that lets users look up skywatching info for their exact viewing site, to look up exact US 193 flyby times in your city. Word is is that the satellite streaks by fast, not with the slow pace I’m used to observing from satellite-spotting in the yard. It’s visible in the Asheville area on Feb. 16, 17 and 18.

Today the Pentagon announced plans to blow US 193 up before it reenters the atmosphere.

From Heavens-Above:


USA 193 was launched on December 14th, 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch vehicle was a Delta II. Shortly after reaching obit, ground controllers lost the ability to control the satellite, and have never regained it.


The exact design and purpose of USA 193 are, or course, closely guarded secrets, but specialists believe it is probably a high resolution radar satellite which was intended to produce images for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

When and where will it hit the Earth ?

This is the question which interests most people, and unfortunately very difficult to answer. The satellite is being slowed down by friction with the tenuous upper atmosphere and losing height steadily, as can be seen in the plot below, which shows the orbital height over the last year. As it sinks further, the atmospheric density increases and so does the friction, making the descent faster and faster. Re-entry will happen when the height reaches about 100km.

I plan to try to catch it whizzing by, and when I do I know I’ll relive the days when Skylab was falling, way back in the summer of 1979, when my mom, in an act of kindness I have never forgotten, drove her 10-year-old daughter around suburban Greensboro after dark, hoping to catch a glimpse of a falling man-made star.

Thanks, Mom.

2 responses to “Doomed Spy Satellite Overhead This Month

  1. I just heard about them wanting to blow up this satellite yesterday. Didn’t even think about looking for it flying around the sky. Have you caught a glimpse of Atlantis this week? I posted the sightings schedule but I keep forgetting to get out to look for it (the cold temps from the past few days certainly didn’t encourage me).

  2. No, I haven’t seen Atlantis. School keeps me from doing much of anything fun. And yes, it has been cold!

    I’ll be looking for US 193 and catching the lunar eclipse, though!

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