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Internet Problems Mount for Asia/Europe Connection

For the third time this week, a vital cable routing Internet service between Europe and Asia has been severed. On Wednesday, two lines running under the Mediterranean Sea were cut off the coast of Egypt, most likely by anchors dropped by mooring ships. And today, a third high-capacity cable off the coast of Dubai has been damaged, also likely caused by ship activity. The combined disruptions have put a severe strain on network services across the Middle East and South Asia, according to numerous media accounts.

In a report today, BBC News relates that the latest blow to the regions came when the FALCON undersea cable, operated by U.K.-based FLAG Telecom, was severed 56 kilometers from Dubai in the Persian Gulf. It was the second major underwater accident for the FLAG (Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe) system in less than 48 hours. Two days earlier, its FLAG Europe-Asia cable was sliced 8.3 km at sea from Alexandria, Egypt.

Also damaged at the time of the first accident, the SEA-ME-WE 4 (South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4) cable line, running parallel to FLAG Europe-Asia lost service. SEA-ME-WE 4 is operated by a consortium of companies throughout Europe, Africa, and Southern and Southeast Asia. Both fiber-optic systems connect providers and users from Western Europe to Eastern Asia directly.

A communications analyst, Eric Schoonover of the research firm TeleGeography, told CNN News that Wednesday's accident was the more serious of the two, according to a late-breaking report. He noted that SEA-ME-WE 4 and FLAG Europe-Asia carry about three-fourths of the online service available between Europe and the Middle East. The FALCON system that was interrupted earlier today operates on a ring that makes much of its capacity redundant in cases of physical damage to individual cables.

Still, users throughout this populous portion of the world were stymied by the combined outages. Angry customers voiced strong opinions on the matter to various news outlets throughout the affected regions.

"Everyone is trying to absorb the shock," Joseph Metry, a network supervisor at Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, one of the largest phone companies in the Middle East and North Africa, said in a Times of London account.

On its Web site (which is operating normally), FLAG Telecom stated that a repair ship is expected to arrive at the site of the FLAG Europe-Asia accident in four days and that it expects the damage will be repaired "within a week thereof." As for FALCON, the company said, "[A] repair ship has been notified and [is] expected to arrive at the site in [the] next few days."

Meanwhile, network traffic cut off by the damaged cables is slowly being re-routed through other systems (such as the older SEA-ME-WE 3 cable) and connectivity has begun to pick up again.

Egypt's minister of Communications and Information Technology, Tarek Kamil, said he expects his nation's infrastructure will suffer over the days ahead but will gradually improve. "However, it's not before ten days until the Internet service returns to its normal performance," Kamil told the state Al-Ahram newspaper.

The remarkable coincidence of losing three major communications channels in such short order surely tells us much about how the world has been connected from any point on the globe to another in a relatively brief amount of time--and how much we take this for granted. While such robust connectivity has served to bring us together, its fragility also serves to remind us that we are still bound by circumstances beyond our control. Increasingly, this is becoming a lesson experienced by all the people of our planet.

U.S. Government Terminates Its Major Clean Coal Project

By far the most important project in the U.S. governmentâ''s carbon sequestration program came to a screeching end on 31 January with the announcement by the U.S. Secretary of Energy that the department was pulling the plug on FutureGen. The basic idea of FutureGen, which goes back more than a decade, was to develop an integrated carbon-free coal gasification technology, where the gas would drive electric power turbines, separated hydrogen might power fuel cells, and the captured carbon dioxide would be permanently disposed of in geologic repositories. With the demise of FutureGen, whether it turns out to be somewhat exaggerated or not (as Mark Twain once said of his own alleged death), all the more significant is the clean coal plant being built in eastern Germany, with an alternative carbon-capture technology called oxyfuel.

That project will be the first larger-than-laboratory-scale electric power plant in which the carbon is captured for permanent disposal.

The East German plant, located in a town called Schwarze Pumpe, not far from the Czech and Polish borders, is a joint project of the Swedish national energy company Vattenfall and the French power engineering company Alstom. At that demonstration facility, which is to be completed this spring, nitrogen will be separated from air pre-combustion, so that post-combustion flue gases consist essentially of just water and carbon dioxide. The initial air separation process is costly in terms of both energy and money, but the dividend comes with the simplification of the CO2 removal process.

As for FutureGen, the concept for the plant was outlined in a 1997 report by the energy panel of the Presidentâ''s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the last-such top-level look at long-term U.S. energy policy (if one excepts the controversial 2001 Cheney report, which was produced behind closed doors, without the same kind of open scientific review). The Bush administration adopted the project in 2003, defining it as a public-private partnership, in which a group of private energy companies would pay for the gasification and generation plant, while the government, would cover the carbon capture and disposal costs. In the meantime, however, the estimated cost of the project has soared from about $1 billion to $1.8 billion, the Energy Department says.

A site for FutureGen had been selected in Illinois, and so the departmentâ''s decision to shelve the project drew howls of protest from several of the stateâ''s heavyweight political leaders, including presidential candidate Barack Obama and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic Partyâ''s most influential strategist. Like a Phoenix, the project may of course rise againâ''but by the time it does, Vattenfallâ''s Schwarze Pumpe plant will be up and running, and follow-on commercial-scale oxyfuel projects will likely be well along.

NASA Pauses to Reflect on Past

The U.S. space agency has its hands full at present but still has made room for a few moments to remember its past.

Yesterday, NASA's Messenger space probe returned the clearest images of Mercury ever seen from 2 billion miles away. Meanwhile, in Earth orbit, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) successfully completed a seven-hour spacewalk to repair a crucial external motor that orients the station's starboard solar array. And while this was going on, managers of the space shuttle program finalized the launch of their next mission, STS-122, for one week from now.

Still, today is special to the men and women of the American space program. Fifty years ago on this date, prior to the formation of NASA, the United States launched Explorer I, the nation's first spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA sets aside this date annually as a Day of Remembrance to honor those who have fallen in pursuit of the exploration of space, with special recognition of three tragic accidents that claimed the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.

In a prepared statement, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin addressed the entire agency: "The last week of January brings, every year, a confluence of sobering anniversaries that we honor this Thursday with our Day of Remembrance. On Jan. 27, we marked 41 years since the loss of the crew of Apollo 1, and with it NASA's loss of innocence. The Apollo fire made it clear that we bring to spaceflight the same human flaws as our forebears who first sailed the ocean or went aloft in stick-and-wire contraptions. Successive generations have known the same harsh truth; the crew of Challenger was lost to us on Jan. 28, 22 years ago, and on Feb. 1 we mark five years since the loss of Columbia."

Griffin added notably:

But as tempting as it is for us who are engineers and managers to take comfort in finding and fixing the root causes of these accidents and other near misses, I think we do ourselves a disservice thereby. For when we investigate, we always find that there were people who did see the flaw, who had concerns which, had they been heard and heeded, could have averted tragedy. But in each case the necessary communication -- hearing and heeding -- failed to take place. It is this failure of communication, and maybe the failure of trust that open communication requires, that are the true root causes we seek. These are the real reasons we have a Day of Remembrance, and need one.

In looking back, to triumphs and tragedies, perhaps those who seek to fly to the stars will gain the insights needed to go forward with more humility and wisdom, as there is so far to go. Seneca the Younger wrote: per Asperam ad astra (through difficulties to the stars). It is a fitting thought on this occasion.

More highlights from Demo 08

I already told you about Livescribe, Leapfrog, iVideosongs, and HubDub, all introducing new products or services at Demo 08. Here, in no particular order, are a few others that, for me, stood out from the herd.

GreenPlug. GreenPlug has developed a chip and software that enables one power supply to charge multiple devices with different power requirements. The devices talk to the power supply, telling it what DC voltage they need, and when theyâ''re done charging. Besides being a boon for road warriors (much less hardware to carry), GreenPlug conserves energy; it doesnâ''t continue to draw power when batteries are fully charged. The company plans to sell the chip to companies building power supplies; it will give the software away to consumer product manufacturers.

BitGravity. BitGravity announced a service to allow live video to be compressed and then streamed over the internet, with, the company says, just a four second delay from video capture to the end userâ''s screen, at high definition resolutions. The company says it be used to reach millions of viewers at a time.

MoBeam from Ecrio. MoBeam aims to replace paper grocery store flyers with a keychain-attached gizmo that downloads coupons from a computer and then, using a pulsing LED, transmits the coupon codes to a standard supermarket scanner. Not too much more cumbersome to carry than a supermarket loyalty card; they just need to make it double as a flashlight (for reading theater programs) and theyâ''ve got me.

Eyealike. Eyealike has developed image analysis techniques that enable it to pull an identifiable signature out of standard video, and then automatically compare that signature to the scads of videos on the internet, whether theyâ''re on video sharing sites, social networks, or blogs. Content producers are going to like this one, if Eyealikeâ''s claim of a 95 percent detection rate with no false positives is true.

Ntrainer. Neither a business or consumer product, Steven M. Barlow a professor in Neuroscience, Biology, and Human Engineering at the University of Kansas demonstrated a pulsing pacifier that helps solve feeding problems in premature infants. Some premature infants havenâ''t developed the sensory circuitry needed to organize an efficient sucking pattern; the Ntrainer, in three minute sessions, three to four times a day, simulates a typical pattern, and, usually within a few days, the infant picks up the pattern and can feed normally. â''In experiments,â'' Barlow said, â''we can trim two weeks off a (hospital) stay.â''

Wouldn't you rather play tech futurist than Scrabulous?

Hereâ''s an online game that may just tear the people sitting around me at Demo 08 away from their Scrabulous games (which is what happens when you have decent internet access at a conference; people arenâ''t just taking notes on their laptops). HubDub introduced a news prediction site; you track stories youâ''re interested in and compete on the accuracy of your predictions. One hot topic right now is the fate of the U.S. spy satellite, do you think itâ''ll hit water, the Americas, Eurasia, Africa/Australia, or simply disintegrate? You can make your prediction here.

Detonating an IED in Iraq

IEEE Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette reports from Iraq, where he is on assignment for an upcoming story about counter-IED technology. This is Zorpette's second visit to Iraq. He traveled there in late 2005 to report about reconstruction efforts in his award-winning feature "Re-engineering Iraq."


I got to blow up an IED yesterday.

It was very satisfying. It smoked afterward.

I went out with a Navy EOD team to do "route clearance" on what the coalition calls Main Supply Route Tampa.

It was my second route clearance. I'd gone out Saturday but it was cut short because fog rolled in and the medevac status went "black," meaning the medevac helicopters couldn't get to us if we needed them.

MSR Tampa is what the coalition calls the main north-south highway through Iraq. We started at COB Speicher, where the team is based, and went about 90 kilometers north and then came back.

There was a briefing in the predawn darkness, eighteen of us standing around in a circle in the light of our huge armored vehicles. The EOD team I was with went out with 16 Army "engineers" (not really engineers) who were in RG-31s and Buffalos, armored and equipped with optics, robot arms, or other systems to help them spot and manipulate IEDs. The briefing covered recent intelligence on insurgents in the area, procedures if we were to be attacked, if medevac were necessary, if we found IEDs. We got our call sign ("trip wire.")

Then a tall African American soldier said a prayer. All the soldiers looked like high school students. They were prancing and talking sh#t like it was a pep rally. By contrast the Navy EOD guys looked like grizzled veterans. Then I realized I was old enough to

be their father.

We got in the trucks and rolled out. The two EOD operators and I were in a Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle (JERRV. Google it.) We listened to loud thrash metal on an iPod plugged into a fairly amazing sound system. No, the $740,000 JERRV doesn't come with a HiFi system; the operators put them in themselves because route clearance takes 9 -- 10 hours, you go about 20 mph, and you would lose your mind without a sound system. After 20 minutes, I would have traded $500 for the opportunity to listen to Mildred Bailey or Frank Sinatra.

I asked the EOD team leader why he became a Navy EOD operator. He said, "I wanted to dive and blow sh#t up." Indeed. Who doesn't?

After about an hour we started skirting the sprawling city of Bayji. To a middle class Westerner, it seems sort of decrepit and depressing, trash strewn in parts, like most of the Iraqi cities I've seen so far.

About 40 minutes after we hit the outskirts of Bayji we held up because the lead vehicle, one of the RG-31s, spotted something suspicious in the road. It turned out to be a big metal box with two bricks in it and some wires attached; apparently a standard dummy IED. Word came back over the radio, and wecontinued to hold up while the engineers searched for other devices. The Navy guys noted that the insurgents often place fake IEDs for several reasons: (a) to videotape how route clearance teams deal with IEDs, in

order to refine their methods of attack; (B) to halt the teams so they can fire a rocket or

rocket-propelled grenade or EFP at one or more vehicles; (c) to distract the teams from a real, better concealed IED nearby.

A while later we heard over the radio that Iraqi Police detained five men in a car shortly after we were there-- they had the standard kit- long-range cordless phones (used to trigger IEDs), assault rifles, and video camera. There was also apparently a sixth man, who escaped, who supposedly had an IED. How the police surmised what he had without catching him I could not pin down.

The fake IED was near the intersection with a route that bypasses Bayji; the coalition calls this route the Hershey Bypass. It's notorious for many large IEDs. (There's a 10-sec. video of a big blast bareley missing a humvee.) When an IED detonates, the Army engineers fill in the blast crater with concrete, because the insurgents used to use the same craters to plant new IEDs. Parts of Hershey bypass are pocked with concretem patches. As we went by various patches, the EOD guys gave me a guided tour of some of the more notorious


We got to the top of our route around mid day. We turned around and came back down and dropped in for lunch on a forward operating base called FOB Summerall. It was not a relaxed place; there are few people stationed there and the surrounding area is still pretty hostile. But the food at the DFAC was good.

We dropped off a coffee machine for the EOD team there. The operator we met there had that "really happy to get company" demeanor. The pathway leading to their tactical operations center was a line of captured brass artillery shells, laid side by side.

We continued south on Tampa. More thrash metal and hip hop. Besides the music blasting in the cabin, we were wearing headphones that let us talk to each other and also to the other vehicles in our group. So sometimes you were hearing three different things: thrash metal, an internal conversation, and an external one. It gave me a headache, but the EOD guys seemed used to it and could somehow process all three noises separately.

There was a bit of a weird dynamic in the JERRV, because the driver/team leader was actually a lower rank than the robot operator, who was a college-educated lieutenant. But the team leader was on his third deployment to Iraq; had been on more than a hundred IED missions, had seen more than a dozen vehicles hit by IEDs, and had himself survived a hit on his vehicle. The officer/robot operator was basically almost as new to all this as I was.

About 20 km north of Speicher we heard on the radio that the lead vehicle of a supply convoy had seem something that looked like a possible IED in the road and had held up the convoy (and all other traffic on the highway).

We went by two donkeys grazing in the median and arrived at the scene around 2:45. Some of the other vehicles in our caravan blocked traffic. Our team leader leaned out the window where a soldier was standing and said, "what's going on?" He said the thing looked like two 120 mm artillery rounds in a burlap bag with wires coming out of it.

We were about 125 meters north of the thing. The robot operator sent the robot out; it has a video camera sensitive to three different spectra. On the screens in the JERRV we saw a burlap bag with two bags of something inside it, and 2 wires running to the west. Each of the bags was too big and heavy for the robot to push. "That's UBE or sand," the operator said.

"We'll find out when we blow it." UBE means unidentified bulk explosive.

He steered the robot back to the JERRV. The team leader tied a big knot in some detonation cord and taped it up with three blocks of C4. He put it in the robot's manipulator and the operator steered the robot back to the IED. Manipulating the controls inside the back of the JERRV, he commanded the robot to put the charge in between the two bags. Then they let me pull the pin on the igniter.

There was a big orange fireball, a thump that felt like a punch in the chest, and then acrid-smelling black smoke. "Yep, that was definitely some sh#t," the team leader said. The initiator kind of sparked and sizzled in my hand, so I threw it down, and it left burn marks on my sweater (souvenirs!).

The black smoke was a hallmark of homemade explosive, the team leader explained. Military explosive usually gives off white smoke when it blows up.

Then he informed me that according to Navy EOD tradition, I owed him a case of beer. He keyed the iPod, and blasted "Play that Funky Music, White Boy," while the two of them played air drums.

It was a big enough blast to damage a Humvee, maybe even kill someone inside, they guessed. We found frag in the road around the blast, which meant that there was also almost certainly an artillery shell in among the bags of UBE, to create shrapnel.

We gathered up the command wires, which were the standard enamel-covered copper wire that the insurgents use all over Iraq; it seemed to me to be the wire used to wind coils in motors and transformers. I think it might be called Litz wire. It's thin and easily concealed but sufficiently conductive to carry the power needed to pop a blasting cap.

The wires from the IED we detonated went off quite obviously to a 1-story building, about 25 meters square, about a kilometer away. The driver and the robot operator got into a slightly tense discussion about what to do. The operator wanted to go kick in the door, but the more experienced team leader (but remember, he's junior in rank to the operator) thought it wasn't a good idea. The engineers we were with weren't really trained for that kind of fight, if it came to that. And we had no interpreter with us, so if we found people in the house we couldn't ask them why there were copper wires leading to their residence. Plus, unspoken, was the fact that I was there, I guess, another encumbrance.

In the end, the team leader's will prevailed. He said to the lieutenant, "Are you disappointed in me? Did you want to go out there and kill somebody?" But the lieutenant agreed in the end that it was a job for a QRF (quick reaction force) team, which is specially trained for that sort of thing.

The team leader mused aloud, I guess for my benefit, "Where do you turn off your aggression level?" He'd been in several situations like this one, except in those cases there was also a combat-trained team, the commander of which was "basing his decision on what you say--whether they destroy a house or knock down a building."

My happiness was short lived. When we got back to the Navy EOD tactical operations center at Speicher, we learned that five soldiers in a Humvee were killed in an EOD blast and coordinated ambush from a mosque in Mosul, north of where we were.

I'm in Kuwait now, on my way out. See y'all soon.

E-learning meets iTunes at Demo 08

Iâ''ve attended several Demo conferences over the years. The Demo format gives people with new companies, products, or technologies six minutes on stage, to introduce the audience of journalists, investors, and other entrepreneurs to their innovation.

Inevitably, as I chat in hotel halls and elevators with people getting ready to present at Demo, someone will ask me for â''tips.â'' I havenâ''t uncovered one sure route to Demo magic over the years of observing, but I have one thing I always say (itâ''s my pet peeve, anyway). That is, whereâ''s the money? How are you going to support the business and eventually show a profit?

Way to many entrepreneurs tell me they envision â''multiple revenue streams,â'' a â''three-legged stool,â'' or â''all sorts of ways of generating income.â'' Bzzzt! Wrong answer. Thatâ''s telling me youâ''re hoping you can get money somehow, but really, you donâ''t have a clue.

Thatâ''s why meeting the team from iVideosongs was so refreshing. They may not be using the flashiest new technology, but they know where theyâ''ll be looking for that revenue stream. And since my family will likely be sending some cash their way, Iâ''m qualified to say, theyâ''re looking in the right place.

IVideosongs is, at its most basic, selling e-learning. Ho hum, nothing new there, e-learning has been around for a long time, typically nichy stuff. Ivideosongs, however, has picked a hot nicheâ''music, in particular, amateur musicians looking to learn hit songs. (Clearly a lot of them need lessons, browse some YouTube videos of people imitating their favorite stars; theyâ''re not all virtuosos.) IVideosongs licensed the publishing rights to a wide range of popular music, theyâ''ve convinced artists (like John Oates) to give the lessons, theyâ''ve hired musicians to make the videos when the artists arenâ''t available. And each package is downloadable, music plus lesson, DRM free (that is, it can be moved from a computer to any device, burned to a CD, whatever). The price is $4.95 for downloaded lesson from a no-name artist, $9.95 for a lesson from the original artist.

My 16-year-old son is in the target market; aspiring musician who goes to the Web whenever he wants a new song, looking for guitar music, performances on YouTube; both often has errors, making learning the song a struggle. IVideosongs is in Beta; heâ''s already downloaded two lessons, Heaven (Los Lonely Boys) and Sweet Home Alabama (Lynryd Skynyrd). He reported that the downloads took a while, 30 minutes for one, nearly 40 for the other; the way the lessons are presented seem to be the way he wants to learn, and heâ''s eager to get started. Iâ''ll give you an update once he gets a break from homework.

MEMS in Hems: Is technology the new fashion statement?


Last week, I helped run a conference with the London College of Fashion , earnestly entitled â''Micro and Nanotechnologies for Fashion and Textilesâ''. But I prefer the title used by one of the speakers for their presentation: â''MEMS in Hems."

I have helped organize other conferences that focused specifically on the impact of nanotechnologies on the textile industry. But this was the first time we tried to really hone in on the idea of how micro and nanotechnologies are impacting the way fashion designers and retailers approach their craft and business.

The guiding principle was if technology is the new fashion statement (with the understanding that people purchase iPods as much for their fashion qualities as for their technological capabilities), what new directions is this opening up for fashion and fashion designers.

While noted fashion designers like Helen Storey offered their latest work that brings together the disparate worlds of science and fashion: Wonderland, the question of how nanotechnologies are changing the way designers approach fashion is still somewhat unanswerable.

Technical textiles, such as stain resistant and odor resistant garments, offer new functionality, and ski jackets with an MP3 player built in are becoming increasingly de rigueur, but it has not quite reached the point where designers are imagining new styles, they merely see more functions.

In other words, we are not going to see on the runway soon biomimetically inspired coats that change color depending on the weather. But measured by the enthusiasm of students, who presumably will be the next generation of designers, we may very well see such things in the future.

Pen computing: not just for kids

The clever pen computing technology developed by Anoto, a Swedish company that developed a system that combines a digital camera and paper covered with a dot pattern, is enabling two new consumer products, both launching at Demo 2008 this week in Palm Desert, Calif.

The Tag Reading System from LeapFrog Enterprises and the Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe, in some ways, couldnâ''t be more different.

IMG_1748.JPGTag is for kids. It talks. A child uses the pen-like reader to touch spots on a childrenâ''s book. The book itself looks like an ordinary hardcover book; the dot code, for the most part, is well hidden. The pen responds by reading whole pages, saying individual words, scoring learning games, or chiming out sound effects. The reader will sell for around $50; the hardcover titles for about $14 each.


The Pulse Smartpen is for adults. It listens. It actually functions as a pen, and writes on any kind of paper. When you write on the dot-covered paper, it stores what youâ''ve written in digital form. (This has been done before). The new twist: the Pulse also can record speech while youâ''re writing, and files that recorded speech with your notes. So, in a meeting, you can take abbreviated notes and use these to navigate a sound file later. A USB connection lets you move the notes and the sound to a computer for long-term storage. Because the Pulse does optical character recognition as you write, it also can do simultaneous translation, displaying the translation on a tiny screen on the side of the pen. The Pulse Smartpen will sell for around $200 for a 2 gigabyte version, $150 for a 1 gigabyte version. The special coded paper, in various notebook forms and in single sheets will, the company says, cost about the same as comparable unencoded office supplies.

Besides being connected by the Anoto technology, these two technologies share another bond. Tag is the second pen computing product from LeapFrog; it follows the Fly Pentop Computer, a product used for notetaking, calculating, and learning games. Electrical Engineer Jim Matggraff designed the Fly for LeapFrog; in 2005 he left that company to start Livescribe as a subsidiary of Anoto; the company spun out in 2007.

My kids have outgrown the picture books that make up Tagâ''s world; I think itâ''ll be a successful product, but I wonâ''t be buying it; I'm sure my friends with young kids will, however. The Pulse Smartpen I want now. Actually, last week. I can immediately see just how much time it will save me, just how useful it will be. And, to judge by the hum around me in the conference ballroom as Livescribe concluded its demo, and from the crowd around Livescribeâ''s booth later; Iâ''m not the only one who wants to record meetings and then instantly go back and find the two minutes I really want to listen to again without trying to scan the entire file.

Unfortunately, while the PC version will be available in March, Livescribe says Iâ''ll have to wait for the Mac version until summer.

Where Will U.S. Spy Satellite Fall?

By now, if you're even the least technically inclined person, you've heard that a large U.S. satellite in orbit above us has lost the ability to control its position and is slowly drifting back to earth. U.S. officials conveyed the information to major news outlets, such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, on Saturday under anonymous conditions. Though the officials were cautious to categorize the nature of the machine, independent space experts quickly pegged it as a crippled spy satellite.

"Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, replied when asked about the matter after the news was leaked. "Numerous satellites over the years have come out of orbit and fallen harmlessly. We are looking at potential options to mitigate any possible damage this satellite may cause."

Beyond that, he would not comment on the status of the satellite or what measures might be employed to control its descent.

However, one intelligence expert who would go on the record, John Pike, told an AP reporter that spy satellites typically are disposed of through a controlled re-entry into the ocean to render the spacecraft inaccessible and he discounted any notion that the U.S. would try to destroy the object in orbit with a missile, as that would create an even more uncertain outcome for it.

Pike, the director of the defense research group said the vehicle in question is most likely an NROL-21 earth imaging satellite, which failed in its mission shortly after lift-off a year ago. For purposes of comparison, he told the AP that the slowly descending object is about the size of a small bus.

On its Web site, described the situation in these words:

A Delta II lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on 14 December 2006, carrying the NROL-21 USA-193 satellite. The NROL-21 spacecraft failed within hours of its launch. By January 2008 the satellite was expected to reenter the Earth's atmosphere in late February or March. Although some of the spacecraft would burn up on reenty, the uncontrolled reentry could result in some heavier pieces of debris reaching the Earth's surface. The odds were about three in four that the debris would hit an ocean area. Although the safety hazard of the impacting debris was small, there was some concern that secrets of the spacecraft could be compromised if the debris were recovered by a hostile intelligence agency.

As to why the satellite failed in the first place, another expert told the New York Times it was essentially a matter of communications. "Itâ''s not necessarily dead, but deaf," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In light of the toxic substances spy satellites use in their missions, he added: "For the most part, re-entering space hardware isnâ''t a threat because so much of the Earth is empty. But one could say weâ''ve been lucky so far."

With a timeline of a month or so before the orbit of the NROL-21 decays to a point where it plummets through the atmosphere, there will be plenty of opportunitiy for scientists to calculate its probable crash site. The odds are good, though, that it will not be situated near your neighborhood or anyone else's.


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