Image: UARS map
NASA
This map shows the ground track for the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite beginning in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa at 11:30 p.m. ET Friday and ending at atmospheric interface over the Pacific Ocean at midnight ET Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/27/2011 7:48:12 PM ET 2011-09-27T23:48:12

After days of seeming uncertainty, official satellite-watchers announced Tuesday that a dead NASA satellite broke up over the South Pacific, about as far away from large land masses as you can get.

NASA said the U.S. Air Force calculated that the 20-year-old Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite entered Earth's atmosphere generally above American Samoa at midnight ET Friday. Pieces of it started hitting the water another 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the northeast, southwest of Christmas Island, NASA said.

"It's a relatively uninhabited portion of the world, very remote," NASA orbital debris scientist Mark Matney said. "This is certainly a good spot in terms of risk."

Scientists who track space junk couldn't be happier with the result. "That's the way it should be. I think that's perfect," said Bill Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp. "It's just as good as it gets."

The satellite was deployed into orbit in 1991 from the space shuttle Discovery to study Earth's upper atmosphere and its interaction with solar radiation and particles. Findings from the $740 million UARS mission helped confirm the link between Earth's ozone hole and emissions of industrial chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons. In 2005, the mission ended and the satellite was placed into a gradually decaying disposal orbit.

No credible sightings reported
NASA and the Air Force alerted the general public almost three weeks ago that the satellite's end was near.

"Six years after the end of its productive scientific life, UARS broke into pieces during re-entry, and most of it burned up in the atmosphere," NASA wrote in a final status update.

Experts believe about two dozen metal pieces, weighing about 1,200 pounds (500 kilograms) in all, survived re-entry and fell over a 500-mile (800-kilometer) span.

"NASA is not aware of any possible debris sightings from this geographic area," the space agency said.

On Saturday, scientists said it was possible some pieces could have reached northwestern Canada, but NASA said Tuesday that the newly announced calculations show it landed earlier than they thought, nowhere near North America.

NASA wouldn't say exactly how it knew that the climate research satellite came in earlier, referring questions to the U.S. Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center. Air Force spokeswoman Julie Ziegenhorn said better computer model reconstruction after the satellite fell helped pinpoint where the satellite returned to Earth.

Anatomy of a hoax
Immediately after the satellite's fall, one series of reports claimed that glowing bits of satellite debris were sighted over Okotoks in the Canadian province of Alberta. The reports began to go viral via Twitter, but the updates on the disposition of the debris soon took a sci-fi turn.

"The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down," one update read.

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Over the weekend, a Calgary filmmaker named Sebastian Salazar acknowledged that he was behind the "Oko-hoax," with the updates based on passages lifted from H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds."

"I just started copying word for word what was on there, including the characters," Salazar told the Calgary Sun. He signaled the hoax by using the name "imnotgonnalie2u" for the Twitter account, with a winking face as the account's icon.

"The news guys weren't picking it up; they were, 'all right, we're going to wait for confirmation,' and good for them," Salazar said.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they had no credible reports of satellite debris sightings. RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb said Salazar would face no charges in connection with the stunt, and even played along with the joke. "We've only apprehended three little green men," he told the Calgary Herald. "We'll get those little buggers yet."

This report includes information from msnbc.com and The Associated Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Dead satellite falls in flaming pieces

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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