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Friday: The sky is falling…or just a defunct satellite.


If you haven’t heard it by now, a defunct satellite is due to reach Earth this afternoon (September 23rd).

The defunct satellite is

NASA’s Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS), which launched in 1991 and was shut down in 2005 after completing its mission.

It was originally thought that the UARS was to make landfall in late September/early October, but:

 NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey confirmed with SPACE.com earlier today that the reason UARS is expected to fall early in its re-entry window is because of the sharp uptick in solar activity. Solar effects from the sun can create an extra drag on satellites in space because they can heat the Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to expand, agency officials have said.    (Space.com – September 16)

So why is this UARS falling to Earth?

Generally, satellites in Earth orbit naturally lose altitude slowly over time if they have no fuel to boost to higher orbit. The orbit of UARS has slowly decayed over the years following its deactivation, to the point that it will soon begin its final dive toward the ground, pulled in by gravity.

It’s important to note the “no fuel” part.  So aside from this bus-sized 6 ton object falling, it will not have any toxic components.

I’m not sure about you, but I have no grasp of what 1 ton, let alone 6 tons looks like!?  So in an effort to learn more, consider this a fun lesson.

1 ton = 2,000 pound

= 5,000 – 14,000 lbs (or 2.5 – 7 tons)

= 6 tons

Ok, fantastic.  So an object the size of a bus, that weighs anywhere between 2 large African elephants to 1 Killer Whale, may fall where?

NASA may only know for sure, 2-3 hours before.  But the debris (apparently 26 large pieces..how do they know this?) is due to cover 500 miles (roughly the length between San Diego to San Francisco).

The satellite is rotating in an uncontrolled pattern, which is why no one knows where it will land.

Where will the satellite fall? (WashPo) Click to view larger.

Apparently the satellite is not expected to fall in North America.

Though, dear reader, if you aren’t located in North America, fear not.

There is a 1-in-3,200 chance that UARS debris could hit a person, though NASA considers that scenario extremely remote.

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