Friday, September 23, 2011

Huge Tumbling Satellite Could Fall to Earth Over US Tonight or Saturday, NASA Says

A huge, dead satellite tumbling to Earth is falling slower than expected, and may now plummet down somewhere over the United States tonight or early Saturday, despite forecasts that it would miss North America entirely, NASA officials now say.

The 6 1/2-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) was expected to fall to Earth sometime this afternoon (Sept. 23), but changes in the school bus-size satellite's motion may push it to early Saturday, according to NASA's latest observations of the spacecraft.

"The satellite's orientation or configuration apparently has changed, and that is now slowing its descent," NASA officials wrote in a status update Friday morning. "There is a low probability any debris that survives re-entry will land in the United States, but the possibility cannot be discounted because of this changing rate of descent."

NASA expects about 26 large pieces of the UARS spacecraft to survive re-entry through Earth's atmosphere and reach the planet's surface. The biggest piece should weigh about 300 pounds. The spacecraft is the largest NASA satellite to fall from space uncontrolled since 1979.

NASA officials have said the the chances that a piece of UARS debris hits and injures one of the nearly 7 million people on the planet are about 1 in 3,200. However, the personal odds of you being struck by UARS satellite debris are actually about 1 in several trillion, NASA officials have said.

As of 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT) Friday, the UARS satellite was flying in an orbit of about 100 miles by 105 miles (160 kilometers by 170 km), and dropping. NASA launched the UARS satellite in 1991 to study Earth's ozone layer and upper atmosphere. The satellite was decommissioned in 2005.

"Re-entry is expected late Friday, Sept. 23, or early Saturday, Sept. 24, Eastern Daylight Time," NASA officials wrote. "Solar activity is no longer the major factor in the satellite's rate of descent."

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