Where’d The Satellite Go?

Why haven’t we heard that kind of answer and additional specificity from NASA or the Air Force? What exactly did we think was protecting us against the Soviets during the Cold War?

Since it happened after midnight, aka Geoff primetime, I tweeted and posted to Facebook details of the demise of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. This is the kind of nerdy pursuit I embrace. It was pretty obvious UARS would succumb to gravity and friction around midnight. NASA said so.

#UARS Update: Re-entry expected between 11:45 pm EDT today and 12:45 am EDT Saturday. go.nasa.gov/rb6tR1

Around 3:00 AM NASA added:

We can now confirm that #UARS is down! Debris fell to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23, and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24.

And then:

#UARS Update: Satellite confirmed to have penetrated the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. Precise time & location not yet known

The screencap at the upper right corner of this entry is worth clicking. It’s the latest Google screen for the search “uars.” Obviously lots of people think they know where this 6.5 ton bus sized went. Can they all be wrong?

This morning at 11:23 AM NASA posted to their website:

NASA’s decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California said the satellite entered the atmosphere over the North Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of the United States. The precise re-entry time and location of any debris impacts are still being determined. NASA is not aware of any reports of injury or property damage.

I find all of this very scary. Aren’t we supposed to have a sophisticated anti-missile defense system in place? Aren’t we supposed to be able to localize “incoming?”

This wasn’t some random blip from a crazy despot. We were expecting UARS. We knew where to look… and were looking. And yet we only know where UARS went if “sort of” counts as knowing.

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the spacecraft entered the atmosphere around 12:15 a.m. EDT over the coast of Washington. He said much of the debris likely fell over the Pacific Ocean, with some making it to Canada over northern Alberta and perhaps as far as the Hudson Bay – Seth Borenstein, Associate Press

Why haven’t we heard that kind of answer and additional specificity from NASA or the Air Force? What exactly did we think was protecting us against the Soviets during the Cold War?

This lack of knowledge is very disappointing. Actually it’s scary.

The Thirty Foot Asteroid That Headed Toward Earth Unnoticed!

No one saw this bad boy coming. Not NASA. Not the Air Force. Surprise! It was the size of a small house and we had no warning at all.

bolide3.jpgSpace is a dirty place. There’s all sorts of interstellar junk flying around at breakneck speed. In our solar system Jupiter, the largest planet with the strongest gravity, gets hit most often.

Still, in terms relative to the age of our planet, the Earth gets hit all the time. Just the random dust and specks burning out in the upper reaches of our atmosphere add a few hundred million pounds of additional mass to Earth every day!

Sometimes the incoming rocks are large.

We don’t see much evidence because water and weather gradually heal our wounds. The pock marked surface of the atmosphere free Moon gives a more realistic impression of what really happens.

I mention this because a reasonably significant rock came pretty close to hitting the Earth a few weeks ago. I’m only hearing about it now–and I’m usually pretty up on these things.

Here’s NASA’s dispassionate reporting:

On October 8, 2009 about 03:00 Greenwich time, an atmospheric fireball blast was observed and recorded over an island region of Indonesia. The blast is thought to be due to the atmospheric entry of a small asteroid about 10 meters in diameter that, due to atmospheric pressure, detonated in the atmosphere with an energy of about 50 kilotons (the equivalent of 100,000 pounds of TNT explosives).

The Jakarta Globe said the explosion was loud enough that, “Locals at first thought it was an earthquake and ran out of their homes in panic.”

Well, yeah. A hundred thousand pounds of TNT would make quite a rumble.

No one saw this bad boy coming. Not NASA. Not the Air Force. Surprise! It was the size of a small house and we had no warning at all.

What little we do know of this incident comes because we monitor atmospheric noise while searching for nuclear tests. Again, it’s a surprise to me, but there is a network of “infrasound stations” associated with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and they pinned it down.

In writing about this incident NASA scientists mention “an average impact velocity for NEAs of 20.3 km/s.” In other words, near Earth asteroids hit the Earth’s atmosphere at around 45,000 mph! That’s New York to Los Angeles in under four minutes!

Bottom line, those scary movies where asteroids plunge to Earth causing death and destruction… maybe they’re more science and less fiction than we think.

Something Isn’t Right In Space

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Back in January I wrote about the US spy satellite that will soon come crashing to the Earth. Sure, it’s got all sorts of scary chemistry (specifically hydrazine) on board, but there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Last week most of the experts were poo pooing the danger this satellite’s fiery reentry would bring. Satellites… even big satellites… come down all the time. That’s what they said until Thursday.

All of a sudden we want to shoot this school bus sized piece of space junk down. Shades of Bruce Willis!

From the Chicago Tribune:

Speaking to reporters, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , and James Jeffrey, the deputy national security adviser, said the Navy’s window of opportunity to strike the satellite before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere begins in the next three or four days. Cartwright said the window would likely remain open for seven or eight days.

If the satellite is not intercepted, it is expected to enter the atmosphere in late February or early March.

“This has no aerodynamic properties,” Cartwright said of the satellite. “Once it hits the atmosphere, it tumbles, it breaks apart. It is very unpredictable and next to impossible to engage. So what we’re trying to do here is catch it just prior to the last minute, so it’s absolutely low as possible, outside the atmosphere, so that the debris comes down as quickly as possible.”

A satellite is one lone object. Shoot it down and you get thousands, maybe tens of thousands of tiny objects, all unguided and some likely to remain in orbit for a long time. At orbital speed, even a small object with little mass is destructive.

Back in 1996, after the space shuttle had shifted its course to avoid a dead satellite, the New York times published this:

Dr. Donald J. Kessler, NASA’s senior scientist for orbital debris studies at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an interview that space junk was a growing problem threatening the safety of spacecraft and astronauts. The Air Force tracks more than 7,000 pieces of debris larger than a baseball, including old rocket parts, outmoded satellites, discarded tools, remnants of explosions, and other odds and ends moving in orbit at more than 17,000 miles per hour. And researchers estimate there are more than 150,000 smaller objects that also pose a danger of collision.

“It’s common for space shuttles to show evidence of frequent hits, but nothing catastrophic has happened,” Dr. Kessler said. “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris, but it will continue to be a problem for a long time and we have to take precautions.”

Illustrating how real the problem is, Dr. Kessler said astronauts servicing the Hubble Space Telescope found a half-inch hole punched through its main antenna. And after a flight of the shuttle Columbia last October, engineers found a similar-sized crater in a cargo bay door caused by the impact of a tiny piece of solder, he said.

Here’s the operative sentence: “We are now getting good international cooperation to control space debris.” In other words, space debris is bad and everyone should stop creating it.

In fact, last January, after the Chinese blasted one of their own satellites out of orbit, the US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said:

…the January 11 event created hundreds of pieces of large orbital debris, the majority of which will stay in orbit for more than 100 years. A much larger number of smaller, but still hazardous, pieces of debris were also created.

The United States is concerned about the increased risk to human spaceflight and space infrastructure as a result of this action, a risk that is shared by all space-faring nations. The United States and many other nations have satellites in space in conformity with international agreements that provide for their national security, and foreign policy and economic interests.

So what the hell is going on? Why would we jeopardize our low Earth orbiting fleet (which doesn’t include most weather, communications and TV satellites, but does include the International Space Station, Space Shuttle, GPS, mapping and spy satellites) in an act we’ve already condemned when executed by others?

Is there something that vile or that secret in this spy satellite? Are we looking for a little target practice to show everyone we’re every bit as capable as the Chinese? I don’t know.

My “educated amateur” space knowledge says, something doesn’t seem right… something doesn’t smell right… something doesn’t add up.

There are missing pieces to this story I neither possess nor understand. I sure hope someone else does, and they are free to speak.

What Goes Up – Take 2

A few days ago I wrote about the US spy satellite that will soon come crashing to the Earth. “Falling US satellite is not dangerous,” was the sentiment attributed to NASA.

The Air Force looks at it a little differently. Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads of U.S. Northern Command was interviewed by the AP.

“…it looks like it might re-enter into the North American area,” then the U.S. military along with the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will either have to deal with the impact or assist Canadian or Mexican authorities.

Say what?

We haven’t heard the last of this out-of-control bad boy. Odds are nothing happens, but today no one can guarantee that.

Ever Been Followed Into The Men’s Room? I Have!

This story starts a long time ago – nearly twenty years ago. Helaine was pregnant with Stefanie. It was fall, as I remember, and we were on our way to the North Haven Fair.

We wanted dinner, so we stopped at Danny’s on Route 5 near I-91. I’m not sure if it’s still called Danny’s, but it was a nice family style Italian restaurant.

We were seated, ordered, and then I got up to go to the men’s room.

So, there I am, in the men’s room, standing (as men do), when in walked two small kids. “Are you Geoff Fox,” they wanted to know?

OK – that’s the weirdest place I’ve ever been asked. And, as far as I know, the only time I’d ever been followed into the men’s room.

It’s a good story, and I retell it from time-to-time. In fact, I told it to Steffie last week.

Flash forward to this week – Tuesday night, to be specific. I’m again out to dinner, this time with two co-workers from the station. A nicely dressed man walked up to me and asked, “Do you remember Danny’s in North Haven?”

“Uh… yeah.”

It was the guy whose sons had followed me to the men’s room! He had pictures. They’ve grown. Both are in the Air Force – one a pilot the other a navigator.

Here’s the strange part. He said he and his family had told the story recently too!

Pat Child

Pat Child passed away earlier today. I knew something was up when I walked into the newsroom and saw Ann hugging Tim Clune, both of them teary.

He was diagnosed with brain cancer a few months ago. I expected Pat to tell the cancer to screw itself and then get on with his life. He said he didn’t want to suffer thorough treatment – but he did. Life is too precious to give up easily.

Recently he had been in and out of the hospital. As fluid in his brain built up, Pat would suffer only to come back when the pressure was relieved. Today he died at the hospital in Venice, Florida.

Most likely, you didn’t know Pat Child. He was worth knowing.

I first met Pat when I went to work for WTNH in 1984. Even then Pat was a grizzled photographer, wiser by far than any of the kid reporters he worked with.

I will always picture him with a cigarette hanging from his lips or between his stained fingers. Back then we could smoke in the station, in the news vehicles, everywhere. Pat took advantage.

Pat was not an artist with his camera. His shots shook. He never used a tripod.

I remember shooting a piece in my Mr. Science series and being assigned Pat. Right away he let me know this wasn’t his type of assignment. He started by calling me Geoffrey. He was a spot news kind of guy. He would do his best… but, you know…

On our way back the assignment desk called. There had been a shooting in New Haven. Could we stop by and get video. Though I am the weatherman, that afternoon I became a reporter for a few moments. That impressed Pat and we were friends from that day on.

Friendship with Pat was totally built on mutual respect.

So, why is a news photographer who wasn’t the world’s greatest photographer so important, so memorable? Pat was one of the brightest and certainly wisest men I’ve ever met. Pat was honest – maybe honest to a fault.

Though a scholarship recipient at Yale, he left early and headed to the Air Force where he shot the early days of the space program on film. I can’t imagine Pat in the Air Force. He was too opinionated and willing to confront authority. Actually, I can’t imagine Pat as a Yale graduate either. Their diploma would have lessened his obvious street smarts.

He came to work at the TV station in the early days of local news. It was a less sophisticated, less slick era of television.

When you were with Pat, you couldn’t let something slide. He was too smart to let you. If he liked you, and I think (and hope) he liked me, he would save your butt by being insightful at a time you thought he wasn’t even paying attention.

You could go to Pat and ask him about any event we’d ever covered (and many we hadn’t) and he would know all about it. He would point you in the right direction. He might even add things you hadn’t thought of including. And he would do it all from the perspective of the intellectual he was – a label I’m sure he’d find objectionable.

As Pat got older, and the run and gun life of a photographer lost his luster, he became a satellite truck operator. Working with Pat was like money in the bank.

He didn’t seem like the type who would ever retire, and yet after 38 years at the station, he did.

Friends threw Pat a spectacular going away party at the Rusty Scupper. I was astounded by all the important and talented people who came back to Connecticut to remember Pat. Others who couldn’t make it, sent back videotaped tributes.

It was a once in a lifetime event for two reasons. First, Pat’s retirement marked the end of one era of television. I don’t know if it was a better era, but it was different. Pat Child represented much of what was good about it.

Second, I have never felt so much love for one man in one room. That was astounding.

Tonight, I feel sad for Pat’s kids, his wife Kim (who also worked here for years) and his identical twin brother Bob. I feel sadder for those who didn’t get to share a little of Pat’s life. He was an exceptional man. He has touched me deeply. I will remember him forever.

I told former Channel 8 reporter, and longtime WNBC anchor, Sue Simmons about Pat here’s what she had to say

Continue reading “Pat Child”

Flying Through A Hurricane

Back in July 1996, I flew through the eye of Hurricane Bertha. I wrote about it then, but it’s been mostly forgotten. I thought this might be a good time to repost it here:

The most common question I’ve been asked the past two days is, “Why would you ever fly into the eye of a hurricane?” Fair question.

First of all, I have convinced myself that it isn’t dangerous. Think about it. Career government employees. Not exactly a prescription for risk takers. The plane, a 31 year old Lockheed C-130 Hercules, seems incredibly sturdy and is as stylish as a UPS truck.

Second, it sounded like a great story. Interesting, informative, maybe even a little exciting.

Any time there’s a tropical system worth investigating, the Air Force flies to a forward base and sets up shop. The idea is to have two planes with almost continuous penetrations of the eye. This week, the 53rd Weather Recon Squadron USAF (reserve) was at Homestead AFB in Florida. It’s an eerie starting point, considering wreckage from Hurricane Andrew still litters the base and surrounding town.

Flight time to Bertha would be about 2 hours and we’d be in the air for anywhere from 10 to 12 hours. That meant 69,000 pounds of fuel in the wings, under the wings, and in a 10,000 pound tank adjacent to the port-a-john in the ‘cabin’. And enough noise from the four prop engines to force everyone to wear earplugs or earphones.

Being on the ground during a major hurricane will change you. They’re not surprises like tornadoes or earthquakes, yet they cause damage that’s often more widespread and impossible to prevent. And there’s the paradox of the eye, an area where the strongest and weakest winds are amazingly close. A hurricane’s eye passing overhead is so enticing that people have been known to leave shelters only to be ‘zapped’ as the storm started up again.

Leaving Homestead, we flew directly toward the storm. Miami Center didn’t need to vector us – we weren’t going to run into much company. Not many people do this as a hobby. At 20,000 feet the ride was smooth.

A little over 100 miles out, we descended to 10,000 feet and started taking readings. Temperature, dew point, barometer, wind speed and direction. The sea surface below had enough whitecaps and spray to show the wind direction, even at altitude. Intermittently there were patches of green. The Air Force manual carried by just about everyone on board said that that was an indication of winds over 40 knots. The clouds thickened. There was rain, hitting the windshield at almost 300 mph. My photographer, J.P. Coleman, and I made our way up the stairs onto the flight deck.

My commercial flight to Florida had two in the cockpit. This flight had five, and they all seemed to be working. I started to interview the pilot, a Lt. Colonel, until he stopped for a radio call and then a checklist. The radar, mounted on the plane’s dash, about where the radar detector is on my car’s dash, started showing a somewhat circular green area. This was Bertha.

The blip moved closer to the radar’s center as we approached. I started thinking about the turbulence. How the plane would pitch and roll. How my stomach would trick me into thinking I was about to die, when I was only going to throw up. There are hand holds in the cockpit and I grabbed one, but a funny thing happened. Nothing!

All right, not quite nothing but close. We shook for ten, maybe twelve seconds before settling back to smooth flight.

As it turns out, Bertha was “Big” Bertha because of size, not strength. The eye was not round, but oval. It had more holes than Albert Hall (If you understand this, Ann B. Davis is Schultzy, if you don’t she’s Alice).

The eye was where the real work would be done. In the back, a Master Sergeant prepared a cylindrical instrument pod called a radiosonde. He watched the wind speed at altitude. From 70 to 50 to 30 knots. And then to single digits. As the wind dipped he typed “launch” on a keyboard and the radiosonde slipped out the tube. We knew from the rate of descent that its parachute had opened. It was transmitting back to the plane while falling at about 1,000 feet per minute. As soon as we got the numbers, they were satellited to the Hurricane Center and relayed to the National Weather Service data feeds. All of a sudden, anyone with a computer could get the results of Bertha’s physical.

These numbers are still the absolutely best way to fix the hurricane’s location and estimate her strength. Lower pressure, higher temperature, bigger storm. There is currently no better way to know this than by penetrating in a plane.

And that’s the way the day went. Ten and a half hours in the air with hardly a bump. We flew 100 plus mile legs in a bowtie shaped pattern, passing through the eyewall four times.

So, what did I get out of it? Well, two live phoners, from the flight deck, at 6 and 11. The airchecks are nowhere to be found, but I’m told it sounded exotic and dangerous. That’s probably because we went from the plane to the ground via single sideband shortwave radio and had to say, “over” all the time. Today (July 11) , we aired two separate packages at 6 and 11. And, I’ve gotten a little more insight into the data I use from the National Hurricane Center.

I’d do it again