Heads Up! Satellite Coming Down

By James Fallows

Yesterday I was flying a light airplane from the middle of Kentucky to Gaithersburg, outside Washington DC. It was a flight that had its own complications, which I will describe some other time.* But what got my attention was the pre-flight briefing.

Usually when I'm filing an instrument flight plan, I just do it over the computer. It's quicker and less error-prone. But I was at a place where I didn't have a connection, so I called Flight Service to enter my altitude, waypoints, destination, time-en-route, and so on. The briefer asked if I needed any weather updates, and I said that I thought I was all set. Then he added, "I am required to read you the following NOTAM [Notice to Airmen]" -- which I quote below, and which I just now received again by email in a burst dispatch to all pilots on the FAA's mailing list:

mir_reentry.jpgSatellite re-entry red alert - FAA NOTAM issued
FDC 1/2095 - .. SPECIAL NOTICE .. EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL 1109252359 UTC [Sunday at 8pm EDT]. AIRCRAFT ARE ADVISED THAT A POTENTIAL HAZARD MAY OCCUR DUE TO REENTRY OF SATELLITE UARS INTO THE EARTH'S ATMOSPHERE.

FURTHER NOTAMS WILL BE ISSUED IF SPECIFIC INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE.

IN THE INTEREST OF FLIGHT SAFETY, IT IS CRITICAL THAT ALL PILOTS/FLIGHT CREW MEMBERS REPORT ANY OBSERVED FALLING SPACE DEBRIS TO THE APPROPRIATE ATC FACILITY AND INCLUDE POSITION, ALTITUDE, TIME,AND DIRECTION OF DEBRIS OBSERVED. THE DOMESTIC EVENTS NETWORK /DEN/ TELEPHONE 202-XXX-XXXX, IS THE FAA COORDINATION FACILITY.

I told the briefer, "Well, that is the most interesting NOTAM I have heard in a long time." He said, "Yes, keep your eyes peeled, looking up. You don't want to miss that 'falling space debris'." Somehow it is exciting to be part of big cosmic events.

UPDATE: Thanks to a reader in the sciences for a link to this reentry-info site, from the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies.
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*Short version: unexpected electric-system problems en route, leading to the question of exactly how long should I keep going before I land and see what's wrong. Answer was: stop at the very next reasonable-size airport I came to -- which was Charleston WV, where a broken alternator got fixed and then all was well. Satellite-debris photo, from an earlier re-entry, comes from here.

** Why do I post these oddball aviation items? In part to "normalize" the concept that regular people might actually fly airplanes.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/heads-up-satellite-coming-down/245611/