Heads up!

I earnestly try to avoid rants on this blog, so hopefully you’ll forgive me if I slip a bit here. I’m coming to the conclusion that there must be a law somewhere stating the following (or similar) thought:

Some form of “the sky is falling” must be in play in the media at all times.

Consider this. The hype over the non-collision of the asteroid 2007 TU24 with the Earth (tomorrow!) had hardly died down, when a new story took its place.

A disabled American spy satellite is falling out of the sky, and could kill somebody!

A number of media outlets go on to delve into the “hazardous materials” onboard the spacecraft, and wallow around in the toxic potential of various components of the presumed gadget. Mind you, since the beast is apparently classified, you should be taking all these articles with a large grain of salt.

Anyway, the press coverage so far all seems to be derived from a single Associated Press wire report, but some outlets are getting very creative with their headlines. For instance — Disabled spy satellite threatens Earth shows up multiple times. Wow, the whole Earth? Even The Register gets into the act, with an article subtitled Could contain hazardous materials: just like The Andromeda Strain. So apparently infectious agents from outer space are now involved…

To put things into perspective, let’s look at what’s known (or at least, presumed) based on the original source who was naughty and leaked information on this presumably highly-classified beast:

  • The spacecraft contains beryllium (a toxic, but useful metal)
  • The spacecraft contains hydrazine (a pretty common propellant, very reactive)
  • The spacecraft weighs about as much as a small bus

I’d argue that the biggest risk involved with the re-entry of this satellite is the potential for classified hardware to land somewhere it shouldn’t, like North Korea. But let’s start with the hazardous materials, shall we?

Beryllium is a light metal used in a variety of applications requiring great stiffness for low weight — bike frames, for instance. It’s toxic, but really only when inhaled — and then generally just over long time frames. You can read the online toxicity data yourself, but regardless of media hyperventilation, any beryllium on the spacecraft is only a threat if you took its debris home, ground it up, and inhaled it.

Not likely.

Meanwhile, hydrazine is a chemical second-cousin to hydrogen peroxide (you likely have a dilute form of this in your medicine cabinet at home), and used as a monopropellant in many spacecraft. Hydrazine is sort of a good news / bad news story from a safety perspective. Bad news: it’s highly reactive, so bad things happen (i.e., spontaneous combustion) if it gets splashed on you. Good news: it’s highly reactive, so in the event of a crash, it’s probably all reacted with the crash site & surroundings before you could stumble across much of it.

Mind you, this is a pretty sizeable bird, and coming down in an uncontrolled fashion (so controllers can’t aim for the Pacific). Still, the Earth is a big place, and most of the surface is water — so most likely it’ll burn up over an ocean harmlessly. Even if it does come down over land, most of the world’s land surface is sparsely populated — so it’s unlikely that any sizeable piece would hit somebody.

But on the off chance that some of this thing lands near you, I’d recommend the following behavior:

  • Don’t touch anything
  • Stay upwind
  • Don’t tell the North Koreans

There — that’s not so scary, now is it?

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