Revealed! Stargazer snaps splatellite

An amateur astronomer has taken the first photo of the US spy satellite which is expected to crash to Earth in the next few weeks. John Locker recorded the top-secret craft tumbling in its faulty orbit as it passed over his home in the Wirral in Cheshire, north-west England.

satellite photoYou can still see the satellite for yourself in the next few days as a bright, slow-moving star.

The satellite was around 200 miles up and speeding across the sky as John took his photo of sunlight glinting from its bodywork.

He used a £40 ($80) webcam attached to a typical amateur telescope in his back garden, an 8-inch Meade LX90, to capture his image.

The photo suggests that the satellite, which is said to be the size of a small bus, failed to deploy its solar panels properly, causing it to fail shortly after launch on December 14, 2006.

US defence chiefs had failed to name the satellite. But space enthusiasts have identified it as USA-193, a surveillance craft that is bristling with secret military equipment. It will re-enter the atmosphere in late February or early March.

It also carries a full load of hydrazine fuel, which is highly toxic, dangerously unstable and can cause sickness if humans come into contact with it. Normally the fuel would have been used to help keep it in position and to help it come out of orbit safely at the end of its working life.

The spy craft is in a highly-inclined orbit of 58.5 degrees. That means it flies over most of the Earth from the tip of Scotland in the north to Patagonia in the south. It could therefore crash almost anywhere.

The Pentagon are said to be considering attempting to destroy the satellite with a missile but that could simply create a cloud of debris that would endanger other satellites and some could still fall to Earth.

Communications consultant John previously hit the headlines in 2002 when he revealed that supposedly secret military spy plane operations in the Balkans could be watched by anyone with a satellite receiver.

Photo: John Locker/Galaxy Picture Library.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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