See the Doomed Spy Satellite!

By now you've probably heard news reports about a super-secret spy satellite, designated USA 193, that will tumble uncontrolled from orbit within the next few weeks. The National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the doomed bird, has been mum on its mission and description.

But in a remarkable press conference on February 14th, a deputy national security adviser announced that President Bush has agreed to let the U.S. Navy try to destroy the satellite prior to its reentry by slamming a ship-fired SM-3 into it.

Apparently, DoD computer models have shown that, if left alone, more than half of USA 193's roughly 5,000-pound mass would survive the atmospheric plunge and reach the ground. In particular, there's a 20-inch diameter tank containing about a half ton of the highly toxic propellant hydrazine. So the decision was made to break up the satellite if possible.

You'll notice that I didn't say "shoot it down," as I've seen in many news reports. USA 193 isn't some aircraft that will simply drop from the sky if hit. Nor will some of the resulting fragments end up in long-lasting orbits that will threaten other spacecraft, as others have speculated.

None of the debris will survive more than a few weeks. That's because while, conceivably, the fragments' orbital apogees (high points) might end up somewhat higher, their perigees (low points) will not — and those perigees are already so low that fairly rapid decay is assured. All else being equal, breaking up the satellite will actually hasten reentry because virtually all the pieces will have higher area/mass ratios that the intact satellite did.

Whether this concern for public safety is genuine, or the NRO spooks don't want souvenir hunters combing through whatever wreckage might land on solid ground, or the Navy wants a good excuse for target practice isn't why I'm telling you all this.

Ground track of USA 193
The reconnaissance satellite USA 193 has a highly inclined orbit that carries over all the world's populated areas — increasing risk of injury during its forthcoming reentry, but also providing excellent opportunities to spot it as it sails overhead in twilight.
Chris Peat / Heavens-Above
Instead, I want you to go spot this satellite while you still can. The first interceptor missile won't be fired until sometime after February 20th. (There's some evidence that it'll come about 3:30 UT on the 21st, which coincidentally is during totality of that night's lunar eclipse.)
Until then, USA 193 will be left alone — and, as spy satellites go, it's easy to spot if you know where and when to look.

Right now the satellite's altitude is averaging just 163 miles (262 km), and it'll lose another 10% of altitude by the time the shooting starts. Because its orbit is inclined 58½° to the equator, USA 193 passes over virtually every city and town on Earth. If it were to pass directly over you after sunset or before sunrise, it might be as bright as a 1st-magnitude star. That should make it easy to spot with your eyes alone even from a light-polluted urban setting. Even better, right now the satellite is making a series of favorable early-evening passes over North America and Europe.

To determine where and when to look for it, you can get free predictions from our Satellite Tracker. After selecting your location and time zone, you'll be able to create predictions customized for your location. We utilize orbital parameters derived by Canadian satellite sleuth Ted Molczan from amateur sightings. Because the orbit is evolving rapidly, be forewarned that the predicted times might be off by a minute or two.

Good luck! If you succeed in spotting it, add a comment below to let me know how accurate the prediction was for your location.

12 thoughts on “See the Doomed Spy Satellite!

  1. Tavi

    I use both Heavens Above and Satellite Tracker to observe passing satellites. With the doomed USA193, I found Heavens Above to be the better option. Last evening, I watched this satellite pass over my region at about 6:25pmET. It was brighter than I had expected and about ten degrees higher than predicted by Heavens Above. The timing and track, however, were perfect to the second. Thirty minutes later, I turned to my opposite horizon and watched as the ISS, with Atlantis docked, flew over. Again, a bit higher than Heavens Above had predicted, but timed perfectly


    Our Satellite Tracker and Heavens-Above are using the same orbital parameters, so the predictions should be nearly the same, if not identical. Last I heard, predictions were accurate to within a few seconds. — Kelly Beatty

  2. David Abbou

    I was able to view it easily just a few minutes ago from my backyard in Stafford, VA. It was on time with the Heaven-Above prediction. The satellite passed through Orion and very close to Betelgeuse and was just as bright as the star. Very cool indeed!!

  3. FER

    You haven’t linked it, so I just want to mention that the community of visual satellite observers is not at all exclusive. Google “SeeSat-L” and you will find all you need to know. The archives are incredibly useful. All are welcome, as long as posts are directly on-topic.


  4. TC

    In mid-Missouri I was able to see the satellite for all of 10 seconds. It was very bright and low in the WNW sky. By the time I raised the binoculars it was gone, probably lost in the twilight…

  5. Laurel

    This was the first time I’ve ever used any kind of satellite tracker.Was amazed at how accurate Satellite Tracker was.USA193 showed up right on time!I’m in southern Iowa,Mystic.


  6. Robert

    I’m curious as to whether the impact will be viewable (from somewhere) as it happens, and if there’ll be a noticeable difference in its orbit. It’d be kind of neat to track it zipping along, minding its own business (okay … it IS a spy satellite) when blammo! it gets blindsided by a rocket.

    Also, this event coincides with the lunar eclipse? I’m guessing that’s because it’s supposed to be invisible in earth’s shadow when it happens, right? Not going to get to see this, am I? Why don’t they just ruin Christmas too while they’re at it?

  7. Jami

    So, is USA 193 still up and about? Is everything still going as planned? I’m in Prescott, AZ and it is raining, the rain is great, but I can’t see anything up there. Somebody let me know what’s going on if you know, or after you come back inside. I can’t find anything on NASA, or Weather Channel, or news about the latest. 🙁

    Thanks for the info!

  8. Jami

    So, is USA 193 still up and about? Is everything still going as planned? I’m in Prescott, AZ and it is raining, the rain is great, but I can’t see anything up there. Somebody let me know what’s going on if you know, or after you come back inside. I can’t find anything on NASA, or Weather Channel, or news about the latest. 🙁

    Thanks for the info!

  9. Kovie

    I may have just seen it from here in Seattle. It’s a clear sky tonight and while about to head out to view the lunar eclipse (which I can’t see from my apartment since it was in the eastern sky), I happened to look out my window (which faces west), around 7:30pm PST, and saw a fairly bright orangish object move slowly upward in the sky tonight, looking northwest in the sky.

    It was too slow-moving to be a plane, and too bright to be a hovering helicopter, and moving upward, not laterally. And then I remembered that the navy was supposed to shoot down that spy satellite tonight, and thought that this might have been the missle sent up to destroy it.

    I went online and found out that the navy had in fact shot it down tonight, at precisely this time, and that it should have been visible in the part of the sky, in this part of the country. I’m wondering if anyone else saw this, and if this is what it in fact was. I’ve never seen a rocket being fired before, so I’m not sure what it looks like at night.

  10. Jeff

    At approx 7:40 PST I saw 2 good size fireballs sail over top my house in Prince George BC. So much for the pieces falling into the pacific. I was outside watching the eclipse and thought I’d just seen 2 of the best meteors I’d seen in years… until I went inside and saw on the news that they had hit the satelite. Made for an interesting evening.

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