NASA confirms satellite fell, but don't know where

Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland
September 23, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A huge chunk of flaming space junk most likely came crashing down to earth Friday night. The problem is no one knows for sure. NASA thinks its aging climate satellite plunged to earth, but when and where is a mystery. NASA is working with US Strategic Command for confirmation.

If the satellite came down scientists think it came down, between 8:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. PT, Friday night, it most likely landed somewhere in Canada. At the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland NASA scientists had an interesting evening watching websites that were slowed down by so much traffic to the site.

At the Chabot Space and Science Center they happened to be celebrating the discovery of Neptune 165 years ago, but that wasn't all they were watching.

"It's passed to the south of us heading in the northeast direction," said astronomer Conrad Jung.

About 8 p.m. scientists noticed the dying satellite was over North America on one of its last laps around Earth.

"Over time, the orbit slowly degrades. The best example of something like that where we sort of prevented it is the Hubble," said Jung.

The window of when and where it would crash kept changing as the day went on.

"Solar activity lately has been causing the earth's atmosphere to puff up and settle down again and so that changes the amount of air drag that the satellite is experiencing," said astronomer Ben Burress.

The FAA put out a warning to pilots and crewmembers to be on the lookout for the satellite as it disintegrated back to Earth. That didn't seem to phase airline passenger Tom Farrar flying home to Phoenix from Oakland.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to happen buddy. You can't stop it. I mean everybody on the ground is going to have the same chance too," said Farrar.

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite was carried aboard a shuttle in Sept. 1991. The satellite weighed six tons and was about the size of a school bus.

On its way back to Earth, NASA expected 26 pieces to survive, the largest piece weighing more than 300 pounds. NASA said the odds were one in several trillion of it striking a specific person on its way back down. This is why Oakland school board president and stargazer Gary Yee had no qualms about going for a spin with his convertible top down.

"I think the probability is probably pretty low that I could actually get hit, but I've got the top down just in case there's something. I can drive under it and let if land in the back," said Yee.

NASA could confirm that the satellite did hit Earth, but they're not sure where. NASA keeps track of about 22,000 pieces of space junk and it does happen from time to time that some do fall harmlessly to Earth. In this case, they're trying to find out exactly where it fell.


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