Image: Undated artist rendering provided by EADS Astrium shows the scientific satellite ROSAT
EADS Astrium  /  AP
An artist's rendering shows the ROSAT scientific satellite in orbit. Experts believe the satellite came down somewhere around Southeast Asia, although there have been no confirmed sightings.
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updated 10/23/2011 3:31:57 PM ET 2011-10-23T19:31:57

A defunct German research satellite crashed into the Earth somewhere in Southeast Asia on Sunday, a U.S. scientist said — but no one is still quite sure where.

Most parts of the minivan-sized ROSAT research satellite were expected to burn up as the spacecraft hit the atmosphere at a speed of 17,000 mph (27,500 kilometers per hour), but up to 30 fragments weighing a total of 1.87 tons (1.7 metric tons) could have crashed to the surface at velocities up to 280 mph (450 kilometers per hour), the German Aerospace Center said.

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the satellite appears to have gone down over Southeast Asia. He said two Chinese cities with millions of inhabitants each, Chongqing and Chengdu, had been in the satellite's projected path during its re-entry time.

"But if it had come down over a populated area there probably would be reports by now," the astrophysicist, who tracks human-made space objects, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Calculations based on U.S. military data indicate that satellite debris must have crashed somewhere east of Sri Lanka over the Indian Ocean, or over the Andaman Sea off the coast of Myanmar, or further inland in Myanmar or as far inland as China, he said.

The satellite entered the atmosphere between 9:45 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. ET Saturday, and would have taken 15 minutes or less to hit the ground, the German Aerospace Center said. Hours before the re-entry, the center said the satellite was not expected to land in Europe, Africa or Australia.

There were no immediate reports from Asian governments or space agencies about the fallen satellite.

The satellite used to circle the planet in about 90 minutes, and it may have traveled several thousand kilometers (miles) during its re-entry, rendering exact predictions of where it crashed difficult.

German space agency spokesman Andreas Schuetz said a falling satellite also can change its flight pattern or even its direction once it sinks to within 90 miles (150 kilometers) above the Earth.

Schuetz said the agency was waiting for data from scientific partners around the globe. He noted that it took the U.S. space agency NASA several days to establish where one of its satellites had hit last month.

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The 2.6-ton scientific ROSAT satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1990 and was retired in 1999 after being used for research on black holes and neutron stars and performing the first all-sky survey of X-ray sources with an imaging telescope.

Experts say the largest single fragment that could have survived re-entry is the telescope's heat-resistant mirror.

"The impact would be similar to, say, an airliner having dropped an engine," said McDowell. "It would damage whatever it fell on, but it wouldn't have widespread consequences."

A dead NASA satellite fell into the southern Pacific Ocean last month, causing no damage but spreading debris over a 500-mile (800-kilometer) area.

Since 1991, space agencies have adopted new procedures to lessen space junk and having satellites falling back to Earth. NASA says it has no more large satellites that will fall back to Earth uncontrolled in the next 25 years.

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

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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