Sep. 21, 2011 at 12:02 PM ET
Update for 4:30 p.m. ET Sept. 23: NASA revised its forecast since this report was first posted to note that the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite was not sinking as quickly as expected, and that there was a "low probability" that debris from the re-entry could fall on North America. The revised forecast said the satellite could come down late Friday or early Saturday, Eastern Daylight Time.
Earlier report from Wednesday: NASA says its derelict Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite is expected to make its final fiery plunge sometime on Friday afternoon ET and notes that "the satellite will not be passing over North America during that time period."
This afternoon's update suggests that Americans are not at any risk for injuries or property damage due to satellite debris. It also means they'll miss out on the fireworks.
For two weeks, experts on orbital debris have been telling people that the 20-year-old, bus-sized spacecraft would soon fall through the atmosphere and drop about two dozen pieces of debris on Earth — but until today, there was too much uncertainty to say exactly which day that would happen. In the morning update, NASA narrowed the time frame down to Friday. The forecast was refined further at 6:35 p.m. ET. But NASA said it couldn't yet be any more precise than to say it'll be Friday afternoon, Eastern Daylight Time.
"It is still too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with any more certainty, but predictions will become more refined in the next 24 to 48 hours," NASA said.
The six-ton satellite's orbit is limited to between 57 degrees north latitude and 57 degrees south, spanning the width of the world between northern Canada and the tip of South America. In the past, Nicholas Johnson, the head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, has estimated that the chances that any of the UARS debris would hit anybody were 1 in 3,200 — which translates into a 1-in-20 trillion risk for any particular person.
NASA's Johnson told me today that he won't be recalculating the odds as the prediction becomes more precise. "At that point, we don't compute odds," he said.
NASA and its partners at the U.S. Strategic Command will be issuing updates on the timing at 24 hours before the expected fall, then at T-minus-12 hours, T-minus-6 hours and T-minus-2 hours — and we'll be passing those predictions along. But even two hours before re-entry, experts won't be able to project exactly where the debris will end up.
When UARS' predicament first came to light a couple of weeks ago, Johnson said the margin of error for the 500-mile (800-kilometer) fall zone would be somewhere around 6,000 miles, or a quarter of the way around the planet. The uncertainty arises because of a couple of factors: Solar outbursts, like the ones we've been getting over the past few weeks, lead to a faster decay of orbits for low-flying spacecraft. Also, the satellite is tumbling, which leads to unpredictable atmospheric-drag effects. Because there's no fuel left for orbital maneuvering, no one has any control over UARS' orbital course.
Most of the satellite will burn up in the atmosphere, but NASA estimates that about a half-ton's worth of fragments will survive re-entry and fall to Earth. The computer models suggest that the biggest chunk would weigh about 300 pounds (150 kilograms), or as much as a refrigerator. Anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of the debris fall would see bright streaks in the sky, much like the fireworks seen when pieces of Russia's Mir space station fell to Earth in 2001.
The most likely outcome is that the remnants of the UARS satellite would fall into a desolate patch of ocean or an uninhabited stretch of land, far away from any witnesses or potential victims. "Throughout the entire 54 years of the Space Age, there has been no confirmed report of anybody in the world being injured or severely impacted by any re-entering debris," Johnson noted two weeks ago.
UARS was deployed from the shuttle Discovery in 1991, beginning a $750 million mission to study the upper atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind. In 2005, it was shut down and placed into a disposal orbit, and its altitude has been slowly decaying ever since. Now the descent is picking up speed: NASA said its altitude at 1:30 p.m. ET today ranged from roughly 120 to 130 miles (190 to 205 kilometers).
Nowadays, satellite operators lay out a well-defined procedure for the safe disposal of Earth-orbiting satellites at the end of their lifetimes. In fact, NASA and its international partners are already devoting attention to what needs to be done when it comes time to get rid of the International Space Station, sometime after 2020. But back in the 1990s, when the UARS mission was launched, such issues were "really not given a lot of thought," Johnson said.
Update for 9 p.m. ET: If North America is out of the picture, what about the rest of the world? Take a look at the graphic on this webpage from The Aerospace Corp. to see why NASA has ruled out North America based on its time estimate.
The circled icon on the map indicates the position of the UARS satellite at 4 p.m. ET Friday. The blue curves show its orbital track before 4 p.m., and the yellow curves show the track after 4. If UARS re-enters the atmosphere before 4, the potential fall zones include the Atlantic, Africa, Middle East, north Asia and the Pacific. If it happens after 4, South and Central America, south Asia and Australia come into the mix. But it'd be well into Friday evening by the time the orbital track goes over the U.S. and Canadian East Coast.
More about the satellite saga:
Check NASA's UARS status page for updated information about the satellite's whereabouts, all the way to the end.
Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.