No matter where the satellite debris lands, Operation Burnt Frost won’t be far behind.
That’s the name the U.S. army has given the quick response team tasked with cleaning up the pieces of the errant satellite shot down on Wednesday.
Made up of military and civilian personnel from at least 15 government agencies, the group is on standby to travel anywhere pieces of the bus-sized satellite may have fallen. .
Of particular concern is its 500 kilogram fuel tank filled with toxic hydrazine.
The team, comprised of members from the Air Force, Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency, has hazardous material suits at the ready to guard them against hydrazine on the ground or in the air. They would wear breathing apparatuses to protect their lungs from the fumes and use absorbent material similar to kitty litter to soak it up if it were to leak.
“This is an incredible effort,” Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Horne, who’s in charge of the team, told The Associated Press. “What we’re doing is to make sure that we’re ready as soon as we’re called.”
The unit was assembled in less than a week as the U.S. military made preparations to shoot down the satellite, which failed shortly after it was sent into space in 2006, losing power and central computer function. It was successfully targeted with a missile Wednesday night by a Navy cruiser, achieving the stated goal of exploding its tank of hazardous fuel.
However, Gen. James Cartwright said Thursday the military will not be positive that the tank was completely destroyed for 24 to 48 hours. If fragments remain, Burnt Frost will be there to come to the rescue.
Other pieces of the satellite have been tracked entering the atmosphere, but none was larger than a football, Cartwright said.
If the plan to shoot down the 2,000-kilogram satellite seems unusual, that’s because it was. Non-functional satellites usually fall to Earth by themselves, burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. This one would have touched down during the first week of March, according to a military estimate.
In this case, officials said they didn’t want to risk the dangerous hydrazine hitting the ground, as fumes from the gas can kill people. Hydrazine is often used to power spacecraft, but can also be used in fuel cells and the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
They’re hoping that if the tank wasn’t completely destroyed, it lands in the ocean, where the hydrazine would be neutralized by the water.
While the U.S. military seems pleased with how they’ve handled the satellite’s destruction, not everyone is cheering — particularly China, which was criticized by the United States for testing a satellite-killing weapons system in 2007.
The official word from the U.S. has been that the shoot-down wasn’t a test, but Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently indicated otherwise. When responding to China’s calls for more information, he said his country has provided sufficient information about “the test.”
U.S. officials said they’re confident any secret technology would be destroyed on re-entry but the explosion definitely helps matters.
Members of the Burnt Frost crew, however, are focused on making sure no one comes into contact with the controversial satellite’s fuel. The team, which is currently waiting at McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey, is experienced in locating debris over a large area. Some members worked on recovery operations after the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 while others were deployed to clean up an oil spill that saw thousands of litres of crude dumped into the Delaware River in 2004.
The team’s members have been fitted with body armour and helmets in case the satellite falls into a war zone. They’ve also been vaccinated against tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria.
No matter where it lands, the U.S. State Department is warning citizens worldwide to keep their distance.
With files from CTV’s Tom Walters, Peace and Freedom and The Associated Press