It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a…Falling Satellite?
Beware beware. There’s a 6 ton bus-size something, or rather 26 somethings each weighing up to 330 pounds, falling towards Earth. An out-of-fuel and out of control climate satellite — the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite or UARS — is in orbit above us and due to succumb to the force of gravity and crash sometime on Friday evening around 6:00 pm EST.
According to NASA, whose space shuttle Discovery launched the satellite in 1991, the UARS is not supposed to pass over North America on Friday, but could come down in Africa, Asia, Australia or Europe. We Earthlings (if you trust NASA’s calculations) have only a 1 in 3,200 chance of being struck by falling pieces of satellite, which will leave a 500-mile path of debris, somewhere.
Satellite and space expert Dr Stuart Eves does say that the satellite’s orbit can only be estimated with about 10 percent accuracy due to uncertainty in tracking the “decay” of a satellite’s orbit (i.e., its slow fall back to earth). There is a “six-hour window either side of the expected decay which is based on a range of probabilities.” Scientists think the UARS could come down in the Southern Ocean, but they will get a clearer picture as it gets nearer and nearer to Earth on Friday.
The New York Times recalls the descent of the July 1979 Skylab space station, which was about as large as a house and inspired a fair amount of “concern and good-humored fun.” People bought Skylab crash helmets and t-shrts with red bull’s eyes (this was a pre-Target era, you may recall) and John Belushi appeared on a Saturday Night Live update “maniacally ramming a handheld model of Skylab into a globe.” As things turned out, Skylab touched down in western Australia and no one was hurt, though NASA did have to pay a $400 fine for littering.
So it’s probably quite unlikely that anyone needs to be donning a protective helmet or running to “duck and cover” for fear of falling satellite debris. Considering everything else that’s occurring on our planet (not to mention a huge fall of the stock market kind today), objects falling out of the sky may well be the least of our problems.
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Photo of the UARS by NASA Goddard Photo and Video