NASA unsure where 6-ton satellite fell

Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland

September 24, 2011 10:35:25 PM PDT
There's still a lot of mystery and curiosity about the NASA satellite that crashed into the Earth Friday evening. One thing that is known is that nobody was hurt.

NASA says the six-ton satellite fell sometime between 8:23 p.m. and 10:09 p.m. Friday. The space agency says the satellite broke apart and fell into the Pacific Ocean far off the western coast of the United States.

From coast to coast, and around the world, cameras were pointed skyward trying to get a glimpse of the doomed satellite.

Cameras in Southern California, Texas and Minnesota were able to catch a glimpse of strange objects that might have been part of the satellite falling down, though it could have also been space junk or meteors. Nobody has been able to confirm the images.

Still, it was an intriguing spectacle for the amateur astronomers at the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland Hills.

"It's always impressive to see re-entry vehicles come in and burn up in the sky," said Chabot volunteer Thomas Treadway.

"Always interesting to get a little reminder how much space junk is out there and how much could be falling into our atmosphere at any time," said Chabot volunteer Greg Woolenman.

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched 20 years ago, was about the size of a school bus. NASA expected about two dozen pieces to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere as speeding balls of fire scattered over hundreds of miles.

The largest chunk was expected to be a little over 300 pounds.

NASA said the odds of people getting hurt were one in 3,200. The odd of one specific person getting hit was one in several trillion.

Space agencies will sometimes steer dead satellites into the ocean or park them in a higher orbit out of the way. NASA tried to control the satellite.

"Some years ago, they ran out of fuel," said Chabot volunteer Stephen Williams.

NASA keeps an eye on more than 20,000 pieces of space junk floating in orbit, a few of which sometimes fall to Earth.

"Every once in a while, you're able to see something larger hit the atmosphere and form a flaming ball of fire," said Williams. "This would have looked similar to that if you were lucky enough to see it."

This particular satellite got more attention than normal, but once every year a five- to six-ton satellite leaves the Earth's orbit. There's no known case of anyone being injured from falling space junk.

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