Your chance to spot doomed spy in sky

A spy satellite has hit the headlines because it is due to crash back to Earth over the next few weeks. But you may not realise that you can easily spot this “top secret” craft for yourself.

satellite photoUSA 193 regularly flies over Europe and the Americas. It will be clearly visible this week from Skymania’s part of the world when it flies several times through UK skies – providing it has not been shot down first!

On Tuesday night (19th) at 6.45pm, UK time, the satellite will be visible as a slow-moving bright “star” in the southern part of the sky as it passes across northern France.

But the next night (20th – the night of the total lunar eclipse) brings the ten-ton satellite over Brighton and Dover at 6.38pm, and Thursday (21st) will see it flying directly over London at 6.31pm.

The satellite, which is the size of a small bus and carrying who-knows-what technology, will cross South Wales and the Midlands on Friday night (22nd) at 6.23pm and Manchester at 6.15pm next Saturday (23rd).

For a “top-secret” spy, the satellite will be easy to spot, shining down like a bright star. You can distinguish it from an aircraft because it will shine as a single glow as sunlight glints from its hull, 200 miles above the ground.

You can get predictions for your own part of the world by checking with the Heavens Above website.

UK space experts are predicting that the USA 193 will crash to Earth in late March and that chunks of it could survive the fall through the atmosphere. Pentagon chiefs are said to be considering using a missile in a “star wars” bid to blast it to smithereens first.

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The spy craft is in a highly-inclined orbit of 58.5 degrees. That means it flies over most of the Earth from the Shetlands in the north to Patagonia in the south. It could therefore crash anywhere and there is a slim but real chance that that could be on the UK or Ireland.

USA 193 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 toxic material beryllium may also be on board.

A British amateur stargazer has already taken the first close-up photo of the spy satellite. Communications consultant John Locker recorded the top-secret craft as it passed over his home in the Wirral in Cheshire.

He used a £40 webcam attached to a telescope in his back garden. John’s photo reveals that the ten-ton satellite failed to deploy its solar panels properly, causing it to fail after it was launched on December 13, 2006.

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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.

One thought on “Your chance to spot doomed spy in sky

  • 02/20/2008 at 2:34 pm
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    From Last two days on 18th & 19th I have seen at 7.40 pm the two stars at particular distance are moving slowlyfrom north to south by keeping constant distance. And on 20th I have seen single star moving slowly from north to south-east. I have seen it at the location Amravati-Maharashtra-India. Is it a doomed spy in sky or anything else ?

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