Bang that means rogue satellite has landed

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Britain could tomorrow receive its first visit from a rogue satellite since the dawning of the space age in 1957. The Chinese satellite FSW- 1 will crash into Earth sometime within eight hours of midday tomorrow.

The one-tonne satellite, which has lost control of its bearings, is likely to land in the sea, but there is a 1-in-300 chance it may crash somewhere between the west of Ireland and the coast of Northumberland. It will be impossible to pre-plan the crash site as it will not be known until seconds before it happens.

Flight Lieutenant Fritz Muse, who has been monitoring the satellite's progress at RAF Fylingdales on the Yorkshire Moors, said yesterday: "No one knows where it will land but it will probably enter the sea, leaving an enormous splash of 20 metres across.

"I'm pretty confident it's coming down on the southern ocean. If it crashes inland, there's a problem, but there's no point in getting worried about it. The likelihood is very slim indeed."

The Ministry of Defence has taken no chances and has alerted its nuclear attack early-warning centre.

Flt Lt Muse is not perturbed. He added: "People are wrong if they think you can hear it coming. If people hear a bang, that means it's landed already.

"It will take six seconds to go from the west of Ireland to the Northumberland coast. It will look like a bright light and be moving a bit faster than a plane."

Whether the satellite, which is about the size of a small van, will be visible depends on whether the sky is clear.

At present it is travelling at 17,500mph, although by Tuesday the atmosphere is expected to slow that speed down to 450mph.

Frances Brown, editor of Space Policy Journal, added: "There have only been two or three rogue satellites since the Fifties, and this is the first British one."

As if FSW-1 didn't present enough excitement for stargazers, next week a comet six times the width of the moon will appear over earth. Comet Hyakutake, named after the Japanese man who spotted it in January, will arrive around 24-25 March within 10 million miles of Earth. This, for astronomers, represents no great distance. The comet, in the same shape as the Plough constellation, will be decorative rather than dangerous.