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It is a bright spot in the sky that can be seen with binoculars, a low-flying satellite about the size of a big van that is expected to crash back to Earth in the next few weeks.

And this returning orbital object is no run-of-the-mill spacecraft, but a new classified U.S. spy satellite.

It has been out of control since it failed to respond to ground commands in the days after its Dec. 14, 2006, liftoff. U.S. officials say they are tracking its uncontrolled descent, which could end in late February or early March.

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The stray satellite spends about 4 per cent of its orbital time over Canada, said Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

He added that, like most space objects returning to Earth, it is expected to disintegrate without inflicting damages.

"The odds are against it," Dr. McDowell said. "Stuff of this size re-enters the atmosphere every few months. It's just not as publicized."

Others believe the satellite flies farther south and might not even skirt Canada.

Fired from Space Launch Complex-2 of Vandenberg U.S. Air Force Base in California, it is believed to be a new generation of radar-imaging satellites. It is sometimes referred as USA 193 or L-21.

The satellite is not responding to ground commands, a vexing situation which underlines the challenges associated with space spying.

"We can't do anything but just watch," said John Pike, a space expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Pike said the satellite is believed to be the first of a new type of spacecrafts for the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive U.S. intelligence agency that provides satellite imagery.

Because the U.S. military has acknowledged it was launched by a Delta rocket, experts extrapolated that the satellite weighs about four tonnes and is the size of a large van.

The satellite was launched into low earth orbit, between 58 degrees of latitude north and south, meaning it flies over most of the Earth's inhabited territories, from Edmonton to Buenos Aires. "There's all kinds of places on Earth that the United States would be interested in," Mr. Pike said.

Most of the time when it orbits over Canada the satellite flies north of the 52nd parallel, meaning that it avoids the country's populated areas, Dr. McDowell said.

He said the USA 193 can be easily spotted with binoculars by those who track its path.

The USA 193 is most likely to end up in the ocean. But otherwise, "I think the souvenir hunters are going to be interested, hoping it will come down in some place where they can go get a piece of a real American spy satellite to sell on eBay," Mr. Pike said.

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