MCGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. – With haz-mat suits at the ready, a quick response team stood on alert Thursday to head anyplace on Earth that the pieces of a lame satellite shot down by the military might fall.
The recovery squad, dubbed Operation Burnt Frost, is made up of military and civilian personnel from at least 15 government agencies including the Air Force, Coast Guard, and Environmental Protection Agency.
The unit was assembled in less than a week with the goal of protecting people from remnants of the bus-sized satellite, especially the potentially hazardous fuel tank.
"This is an incredible effort," said Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey C. Horne, who's in charge of the team. "What we're doing is to make sure that we're ready as soon as we're called."
A Navy cruiser blasted the errant satellite with a missile Wednesday night. Officials said the strike appeared to have accomplished its main goal of exploding a tank of toxic fuel 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
Gen. James Cartwright said Thursday that it could be 24 to 48 hours before the military knows whether the tank was destroyed. He said the team was prepared to collect the debris and fuel tank if needed.
Normally, a dying satellite would fall to Earth on its own, with little chance the pieces surviving re-entry would actually hit something.
The concern with this satellite was that the 1,000-pound fuel tank was nearly full of hydrazine, a toxic fuel often used to power spacecraft.
Officials warned that if the tank hit ground, the tank itself or fumes from the fuel could hurt or even kill people.
[Independent analysts have been skeptical, noting that hydrazine is commonly used in industrial chemistry and that it quickly breaks down in the presence of oxygen. They surmise the satellite's destruction, which cost tens of millions of dollars, was to prevent top-secret spy technology falling into the wrong hands.]
The satellite became uncontrollable almost immediately after it was launched in 2006, when it lost power and its central computer failed. Left alone, the 5,000-pound satellite would have hit Earth during the first week of March, military officials previously estimated.
Early Thursday, many of the satellite's remnants were already starting to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, mostly over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and none of the pieces was larger than a football, Cartwright said.
If the fuel tank were to land in the ocean, the water would neutralize the hydrazine, Horne said previously.
The task force assembled at McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey was pulled together primarily to recover any of the space shrapnel if it were to fall on land.
Many members of the team have experience in similar situations involving locating debris over a large territory and cleaning up hazardous materials, such as recovery operations after the space shuttle Columbia explosion or the 2004 cleanup of an oil spill that dumped thousands of gallons of crude in the Delaware River.
If called into action, team members would don hazardous materials suits to guard against hydrazine on the ground or in the air, and wear breathing apparatuses to avoid the fumes.
If the fuel leaked, they would use booms and absorbent material similar to kitty litter to collect as much of it as possible.
Other factors that could come into play will be whether the fuel leaked into sand, which tends to be very porous, or clay, which can absorb the material, said Duane Newell, 44, a chemist with the EPA who's part of the response team. Or the fuel tank could land near a river or creek, contaminating the water supply.
"There's a whole gamut of possibilities that have to be assessed," Newell said. "It's a significant challenge based on a number of unknowns."
On the chance that satellite debris falls in a hostile environment such as Iraq or Afghanistan, the unit has been outfitted with helmets and body armor. Team members also have been vaccinated against diseases such as yellow fever and armed with anti-malarial pills.
Another concern is making sure that people on the ground aren't exposed to the fuel.
Security teams would travel with the task force to help keep people away from the debris once it's found, and the State Department has been putting the word out to other countries to let them know about the satellite problem so they can warn citizens to stay away from it.
"The likelihood of us being first on the ground are not high," said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Frank Kulesa, 27, who would lead a small team going out to find the satellite's fuel tank when and if it crashes to Earth.
The operation has some similarities with the recovery effort launched after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board and spreading debris over a 500-mile stretch of land from Texas to Louisiana, said Paul Lockhart, 51, a NASA astronaut who helped direct that recovery effort and who's advising on this operation.
However, he said that this time officials have a much better idea of where the debris might land. As a result, he feels the team could get to the site and begin their recovery operation a lot faster than they did with Columbia.
"It's not going to be three weeks," Lockhart said, referring to the time it took to get the Columbia recovery effort up to full speed. "It's going to be hours."