It may sound like the plot of a Hollywood action script, but it's really happening: the US Air Force is anxiously monitoring the descent of a Russian satellite carrying 3,000 pounds of toxic fuel that has malfunctioned and threatens to careen into the Earth within two weeks.
The "Progress-M 27M" satellite, which was meant to resupply the International Space Station, went out of control on Wednesday at 3:04 a.m., and is being monitored by a US Air Force center at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, reports the Washington Free Beacon.
"Currently, the (center) can confirm that the resupply vehicle is rotating at a rate of 360 degrees every five seconds," read an Air Force statement, indicating how the satellite is out of control.
The paper noted that the satellite regularly passed over the northern US and Canada.
US army commanders are aware of the potential threat of the satellite crashing into populated areas while laden with toxic fuel, according to a defense official who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon. However, he said plans to shoot it down before reentry have not yet been discussed.
The satellite is anticipated to reenter the atmosphere on May 9 around 1:30 p.m.
Igor Komarov, director of the Russian space agency, said the satellite - which was due to bring food and fuel to the Space Station - is a loss. It cost $51 million, and malfunctioned for reasons that remain unclear.
Trying to play down the danger, Vladimir Solovyev, flight director of the Russian section of the International Space Station, said the craft would likely burn up on reentry, saying the descent trajectory "indicates the structural elements of the ship will not reach the earth’s surface," according to Reuters.
However, experts warned that if the craft reenters with fuel that froze in outer space, some of the fuel could probably survive the burn up and is liable to strike populated areas.
"The Progress is carrying up to three times the amount of toxic propellants as did USA-193 when it was deemed sufficiently hazardous to require active remediation (in 2008)," James Oberg, a space affairs analyst, was quoted as saying by the Washington Free Beacon.
"There could be a ton and a half of toxic chemicals on board, something we don’t like falling at random out of the sky because the cold or frozen fluids greatly enhance the chance of getting the fuel down to the ground.”
In the USA-193 incident referred to by Oberg, a modified Navy SM-3 anti-missile interceptor was fired at the satellite as it careened towards the Earth.
The missile hit and destroyed the satellite before reentry, around 153 miles above the Pacific Ocean, as the satellite was hurtling at roughly 17,500 miles per hour.