From the ABC 7 Weather team

NASA: Heads up! Large satellite about to fall out of the sky

September 9, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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A seven-ton satellite is plummeting to earth. Time to upgrade your umbrella?

The final resting place for NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite?

RUN!!!!

Oh, sorry there. Just practicing for the giant satellite that's about to fall out of the sky later this month or in early October.

That's right: A 35-foot-long, seven-ton U.S. satellite launched back in the days of In Living Color will soon gracelessly lurch out of orbit and come tumbling down to earth. The blazing reentry process will consume part of the craft, but other bits and pieces are expected to make it through. What does will pepper some sector of the planet with, say, a Particle Environment Monitor. Or a Halogen Occultation Experiment or Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor. Doesn't really matter: It will all be speeding along at a terminal velocity potent enough to punch a hole through an engine block.

Which country will win this lotto prize of glowing-hot space junk? No one knows for sure, as it's still too early to predict the final hurrah of NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. However, as will become clear in a minute, it's not too likely that you'll be reading about a hail of skin-piercing nuts and bolts in the morning Post. "The risk to public safety or property is extremely small, and safety is NASA's top priority," the space agency has said in a statement.

The UARS device, launched in 1991 from the Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to study the ozone layer, was decommissioned in 1995 and ever since has been on a downward spiral of orbital decay. So in the coming weeks, if you see anything that seems to have broken off from this thing, particularly if it's shooting sparks and smoking, please don't touch it but do call the local authorities:

uars falling satellite photo

What, exactly, are the odds of it landing on a city? Well, there have been more than 6,000 satellites launched since 1957's seminal Sputnik launch, according to one estimate, and the chance of a sudden rain of high-tech metal parts over populated areas is a real, if slight, risk.

The danger was brought to the fore in a jaw-dropping way in 1978, when the nuclear-powered Soviet spy satellite Kosmos-954 made an abrupt swoop over the Canadian wilderness. The disintegrating device sprayed a hearty snort of highly enriched uranium over 47,876 square miles in northern Canada before crashing, leading one onlooker to later say, "My gosh, I was standing on the roof watching it go by. Maybe I'm sterile." (Maybe! Only about 0.1 percent of the radioactive fuel source was ever recovered.)

And in 2009, a collision between a satellite owned by the phone company Iridium and the Russian military satellite Kosmos-2251 (somebody should've really recalled that Kosmos series) spurred fears across America of a storm of molten metal. The FAA warned pilots to be on the lookout for the "re-entry of satellite debris," as if you could steer a plane around that. And NOAA, for its part, scripted this one-of-a-kind weather alert:

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN JACKSON HAS RECEIVED CALLS THIS EVENING FROM THE PUBLIC CONCERNING POSSIBLE EXPLOSIONS AND...OR EARTHQUAKES ACROSS THE AREA. THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION HAS REPORTED TO LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT THAT THESE EVENTS ARE BEING CAUSED BY FALLING SATELLITE DEBRIS. THESE PIECES OF DEBRIS HAVE BEEN CAUSING SONIC BOOMS...RESULTING IN THE VIBRATIONS BEING FELT BY SOME RESIDENTS...AS WELL AS FLASHES OF LIGHT ACROSS THE SKY. THE CLOUD OF DEBRIS IS LIKELY THE RESULT OF THE RECENT IN ORBIT COLLISION OF TWO SATELLITES ON TUESDAY...FEBRUARY 10TH WHEN KOSMOS 2251 CRASHED INTO IRIDIUM 33.

Will UARS be that exciting? Doubtful. More likely is that the spacecraft's descent will slip past the notice of most humans. Last year alone, 382 satellites reentered the atmosphere – 369 of them in uncontrolled free falls – and you didn't hear of anyone dinged on the noggin by a rogue CryogenicLimb Array Etalon Spectrometer. No accounts of personal injury or "significant" property damage have been reported from falling satellites since the beginning of the space age, according to NASA.

Our government's space scientists have promised to keep the public informed with all the necessary updates on UARS' return. While you wait for these, perhaps you'll get a few chuckles from this gag video inspired by stricken satellites:

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