Friday, September 23, 2011

Huge NASA Satellite Will Fall to Earth Today

A decommissioned NASA satellite is expected to plummet to Earth today (Sept. 23), and agency officials are monitoring the dead spacecraft closely to try to narrow down when and where the debris will fall.

According to NASA, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or UARS, will make its fiery descent through the atmosphere some time this afternoon or early evening (Eastern Daylight Time), but while it is still too soon to tell where pieces of the defunct satellite will land, scientists have been able to rule out North America from the potential impact zone.

"Re-entry is possible sometime during the afternoon or early evening of Sept. 23, Eastern Daylight Time. The satellite will not be passing over North America during that time period," NASA officials said in a statement late Thursday. "It is still too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with any more certainty, but predictions will become more refined in the next 24 hours." 

The bus-size, 6.5-ton UARS spacecraft is one of the largest NASA satellites to plunge back to Earth uncontrolled in more than 30 years.

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"The most massive NASA satellite to re-enter uncontrolled since Skylab was the Pegasus 2 satellite in November 1979," Nick Johnson, chief scientist of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told in an e-mail last week. "It had a mass of 10.5 metric tons, almost twice that of UARS."

Skylab, the first American space station, fell to Earth in 1979, and debris from the outpost plunged into the Indian Ocean and onto parts of Australia. The Pegasus 2 satellite was launched in 1965 to study micrometeoroids in low-Earth orbit. The satellite remained in orbit for 14 years before splashing down into the mid-Atlantic Ocean on Nov. 3, 1979.

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