Image: UARS breakup
AGI
An artist's conception shows NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite breaking up and burning up during atmospheric re-entry.
By
updated 9/24/2011 3:26:41 PM ET 2011-09-24T19:26:41

It's as big as a bus and weighs 6 tons, but officials probably will never be able to pinpoint exactly where a massive NASA satellite plummeted to Earth.

NASA space junk scientists believe that all — or nearly all — of the parts of their 20-year-old dead satellite safely plunged into the Pacific Ocean, likely missing land. But if their estimates are off, by only five minutes or so, fiery pieces could have fallen on parts of northwestern North America.

No injuries or damage have been reported on land, which NASA officials said was a good indication the satellite went into the ocean.

That doesn't necessarily mean it all fell into the sea. Some debris could have fallen over areas such as Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Calgary, Alberta; and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"Pieces are falling off of this flaming fire ball, and some of it has enough momentum to go hundreds of miles," he said.

Speculation was rampant on sites such as Twitter. There were no credible reports of debris on the ground, said Nick Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris. But if the satellite fell even five minutes later than estimated, some of it could have hit land, he said.

"We don't know where the re-entry point exactly was. We don't exactly know where the debris field is," Johnson said.

Image: NASA map of satellite's path
NASA
DoDʼs Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB has assessed that NASAʼs Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite reentered the atmosphere sometime between 0323 and 0509 GMT on Sept. 24. During this period the satellite passed over Canada, the African continent, and the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The mid-point of that groundtrack and a possible reentry location is 31 N latitude and 219 E longitude (green circle marker on the map).

NASA's earlier calculations had predicted that the former climate research satellite would fall over a 500-mile swath and could include land. Officials said the 35-foot satellite fell sometime between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday and 1:09 a.m. EDT Saturday.

Much of the speculation focused on unconfirmed reports and even video of debris from the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite over Alberta, Canada.

NASA spokesman Steve Cole said that was possible because the last track for the satellite included Canada, starting north of Seattle and then in a large arc north then south. From there, the track continued through the Atlantic south toward Africa, but it was unlikely the satellite got that far if it started falling over the Pacific.

Some 26 pieces of the satellite representing 1,200 pounds of heavy metal had been expected to rain down somewhere. The biggest surviving chunk should be no more than 300 pounds.

NASA urges anyone who thinks they've found satellite debris to call police. It's government property and illegal to keep it or try to sell it. The debris has no toxic contamination, but there could be sharp edges, NASA officials have said.

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UARS is the biggest NASA spacecraft to crash back to Earth, uncontrolled, since the post-Apollo 75-ton Skylab space station and the more than 10-ton Pegasus 2 satellite, both in 1979.

Russia's 135-ton Mir space station slammed through the atmosphere in 2001, but it was a controlled dive into the Pacific.

Before UARS fell, no one had ever been hit by falling space junk and NASA expected that not to change.

NASA put the chances that somebody somewhere on Earth would get hurt at 1-in-3,200. But any one person's odds of being struck were estimated at 1-in-22 trillion, given there are 7 billion people on the planet.

The satellite ran out of fuel and died in 2005. UARS was built and launched before NASA and other nations started new programs that prevent this type of uncontrolled crashes of satellite.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Coast clear from flying space ‘junk’

  1. Closed captioning of: Coast clear from flying space ‘junk’

    >>> after days of hysteria we can all rest a bit easier. a decommissioned six-ton nasa satellite plunged back to earth today. it didn't land on anyone's house or head for that matter. here's nbc's lee cowem.

    >> reporter: to climate scientists, the upper atmosphere research satellite was a hero.

    >> it was really a star of the earth observation program.

    >> reporter: but last night, after orbiting the earth nearly 80,000 times, somewhere over the remote north pacific , nasa's work horse became space junk .

    >> it's the size of a school bus , i think it was?

    >> there it is.

    >> reporter: that orange and white dot captured over san diego was all that most people saw of that school bus . a rather unflatering end for such a faithful servant. in fact, there is a lot of space debris that breaks up and falls to earth. on average there's about a piece every single day. thing it, it's got to be either very, very big or very precise to get any notoriety.

    >> sky lab fell to earth today. as far as we know, no one was hit by any of the pieces.

    >> reporter: when sky lab ended up littering an australian sheep ranch in 1979 , it was the end of what had to come a big joke john belushi style.

    >> here's john with a part of new york here. he's not worried about sky lab . no.

    >> reporter: it's not that space junk doesn't hit people. it happened to this woman while out for a walk in oklahoma back in 1977 .

    >> my first instinct was that it was something from a shooting star , which meant that maybe it might be radioactive or something, you know?

    >> reporter: but she's the only person to have that. even when a 20-pound smoldering hunk of sputnik landed in the middle of a street in wisconsin in 1962 , not a soul was harmed. so maybe chicken little was right when he warned the sky is falling. it is, we just rarely notice. lee cowan, nbc news,

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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