These are no Sputnik sized devices, pinging around the earth at a few kilos. (You can get an idea of the size of these things by the person seated at the bottom left hand side of this satellite under construction). Skylab, parts of which bounced off Australia in 1979 weighed over 78 tons (we used to watch it silently sail through the black southern sky as kids, the most exotic thing I had seen apart from Moira who was from Switzerland). The Russian Salyut from a similar era was about 20 tons. According to www.space.com the US has more than 400 different satellites up there – doing everything from allowing your car navigation system to get you to your neighbours driveway (from your own), through to communications and surveillance platforms. The latter are without question some of the most fascinating pieces of technology around. There is little that is published on these platforms as you would expect for such sensitive devices but Wikipedia comes to the rescue though I did start to trawl through my old copy of The Falcon and Snowman.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) kindly gives a fraction of an insight into what these things can do. Even the older declassified imagery from space is remarkable for its clarity. Even more remarkable is the fact that some of those early systems used wet film, took the images, and returned the film back to earth where they were snatched from mid air by specially fitted aircraft. Nope, that is not science fiction! These days, as you would expect, digital communications have taken over and electro-optical sensors have replaced the old frame cameras – though I bet the old school still rue the fantastic resolution film based imagery can give you. The NRO has a few very low grade photos on their website of the Corona program which gives some insight into the capability. An amazing technology achievement for its day. Google will help you find better quality images elsewhere but the Federated American Scientists site on imagery intelligence is not a bad place to start.
In the meantime the US government is remaining Mum about exactly what is falling to earth. And where, though I am happy to concede that such predictions will be less precise than a tabloid horoscope. The Washington Post has nothing more than a “warning notice” of its imminent return. No doubt the NRO/NASA folk will be aiming to have it land just above the Marianas Trench but if it gets it into it head that it is returning to mother and heads for the Pine Gap facility in the middle of Australia we will be hoping for plenty of notice. The silent, unblinking, sliding white glow across a dark sky is where I prefer to see these things traveling. Not down my main street. Chicken Little, you can’t relax just yet.
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