NASA satellite set to crash back to Earth


September 14, 2011

This artist's impression shows the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched on Sept. 15, 1991, by the space shuttle Discovery (image from NASA)

This artist's impression shows the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched on Sept. 15, 1991, by the space shuttle Discovery (image from NASA)

Image Gallery (4 images)

NASA has recently announced that an out-of-control, retired satellite will come crashing into the earth's surface "sometime" towards the end of September. Furthermore, the satellite, which is about the size of a school bus and weights over 6 tonnes (6.6 tons), will impact the earth in an unknown location between Canada and South America. The exact time and location will remain a mystery until two hours before the event, and that's with six thousand miles (10,000 km) of uncertainty.

"It is too early to say exactly when UARS will re-enter and what geographic area may be affected," states NASA.

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will come crashing back to Earth after it was placed into orbit almost twenty years ago. Although the spacecraft will break into pieces during re-entry, not all of it will burn up in the atmosphere beforehand. It is anticipated that 26 large fragments of the UARS satellite will actually fall to Earth, in a rain of debris altogether weighing about 1,170 pounds/532 kg (the largest weighing 300 pounds/150 kg). Though it is impossible to predict the exact impact zones, NASA estimates the debris footprint will be approximately 500 miles (800 km) long.

The US$750 million UARS satellite will be the largest NASA satellite to make an uncontrolled dive back to Earth in years. However, NASA assures that the risk to public safety or property is extremely low. "Throughout the entire 54 years of the Space Age there has been no report of anyone being injured or impacted by any re-entering debris," said Nick Johnson, the chief scientist of NASA's Orbital Debris Program at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. That's keeping in mind that during this time, on average, one piece of debris has fallen back to Earth each day.

UARS was originally put into orbit in 1991 to collect data on the ozone layer and measures 35 feet (10.7 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide. In 2005, NASA decommissioned the spacecraft, causing it to make a six-year plunge back to Earth. NASA will post constant updates before the anticipated re-entry of UARS, which will come directly from the Joint Space Operations Center of U.S. Strategic Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The center works 24/7 detecting, identifying and tracking all man-made objects in Earth orbit, including space junk.

NASA also warns people to not touch any pieces of UARS debris and to contact a local law enforcement official for assistance.

You can read updates on the falling UARS on the NASA website.

About the Author
Bridget Borgobello Bridget is an experienced freelance writer, presenter and performer with a keen eye for innovative design and a passion for green technology. Australian born, Bridget currently resides in Rome and when not scribbling for Gizmag, she spends her time developing new web series content and independent cinema. All articles by Bridget Borgobello

Why don\'t we shoot it down as it comes in? Test a new missile system and avert civilian injury; win-win.

Chris Lee

oops i guess it fell through the \"supposed\" hole in the ozone layer!

Denis Klanac

I am surprised that no one ever fits a decent sized parachute to these things to all them to brake over a period of several days, and come back through the atmosphere in more or less one piece at a predefined location.

Sure orbital speed and maintaining altitude are synchronus, but a lot of speed ought to be washed off, and providing the braking parachute is able to handle 200 or so degrees cenitigrade, it\'s a dooable idea.

Better to lose the speed over a long period of time (duration of days and hours); rather than minutes.

Better to crash land the whole satellite, than have the bits disintergrating way up in the atmosphere, and rain down over a huge area.

As far as calling the cops? If you people who put these things up are just fine with the landing, anywhere, anytime... and some of the bits may either kill someone or can be toxic or are capable of \"resuming service\" with the deft application of prybar, screw driver and hammer....

Well if your so reckless and have complete disregard for the safe disposal of your own property - to cast it into the assk can of the clear blue sky - then if it\'s on my property - it belongs to me.

Mr Stiffy

I hope Norad and the Russian equivalent are aware of this.... You would laugh but sometimes communications break down.

That said I think Chris as an excellent idea.. I am not sure we have a missile system designed for the task.

From what I understand we only have the Aegis. This is a low altitude or terminal phase intercept, and event hen it isn\'t deployed in great numbers. Shooting the satelite in low orbit might only increase the area of destruction. Might be better to have fewer objects causing greater damage then more objects causing less damage.

It would be nice if the GMD didn\'t suck so bad. Last test of the new guidance systems were complete failure. The budget cuts might be to blame. Since GMD is getting more money for 2011 and 12 maybe it will be back on track soon.

Michael Mantion

They can\'t say when but they can say where. They are lying.


NASA says don\'t touch it? Like hell - that would be an awesome souvenir - worth a few bob too!


\"unknown location between Canada and South America\". I know where that is!


Can I PLEASE give them a suggestion as to where it should come down? Please.

Kevin Wolford

Australian, you took the words right out of my... keyboard! I was gonna say... \'The heck with that! I\'m tossing the metal detector and the shovel in my trunk right now so I\'m ready to go!\"

A O Connor46, I\'m ALREADY somewhere between Canada and South America, so I guess all I have to do is keep a lookout for falling school buses....


Good heavens people. Let\'s use a bit of common sense.

Blowing up the satellite will create a tremendous amount of space debris that can then go on to damage other satellites and end up bringing them down out of control too. Not to mention making the debris field about 100 times bigger and more unpredictable.

The satellite is coming down because it is being slowed by atmospheric drag. And the atmosphere swells and shrinks due to heating from the Sun. And the satellite is tumbling. And the satellite experiences more atmospheric drag when passing through the upper atmosphere sideways than straight on. And all they have right now is radar trajectory tracking of the satellite because it is dead. So they know the trajectory of the satellite but they don\'t anything about its tumble characteristics and ultimate atmospheric drag. They do know the path it will take over the earth.

Most satellites have thruster fuels and exotic batteries. This means there are potentially toxic chemicals that weren\'t intended for raw, human contact.

Parachutes and heat shields would add tremendously to the mass of a satellite and require a significantly larger launch vehicle. And would only be meaningful if the satellite were still under control from earth. A dead satellite (like this one) with a parachute canister and a big, heavy heat shield would just make a bigger, messier impact upon return to earth.

I am sure that NORAD and the Russians already know just as much about the trajectory of this satellite as NASA does. Whether NASA told them or not.


Looks like it came down last night!

Doug Gardner

The \"schoolbus\" is a dead giveaway that this was likely inserted by a Shuttle Orbiter. Some bureaucrat at NASA probably decided that bringing it back to earth in a Shuttle\'s payload bay was too expensive. The cost of a few lives was cheaper than the mission to properly retrieve it....Ford Pinto accounting. Here\'s hoping one of the pieces makes a fiery reentry up a NASA bureaucrat\'s butt for that one, if true.


"Calm down,Dr.Jones! We have top men working on it. Who? (lights pipe,tries to look distinguished) TOP men." -from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

NASA=Never A Straight Answer

That said, couldn't there be vectoring rockets designed to allow a better trajectory keeping it out over the water?

That all sounds a bit sloppy to me.

A public company would never be allowed to do that. For starters, nobody would insure it, I'd think.

That rig sounds bigger than most.


\"Throughout the entire 54 years of the Space Age there has been no report of anyone being injured or impacted by any re-entering debris,\" said Nick Johnson Wow!! too many words to say \"GOVT COVER UPS\"

Facebook User

The shuttles are gone, so there is no solution there. A rather bone-headed move to retire them in favor of \"commercial solutions\" which don\'t even exist at this point in time. The only existing spacecraft is the outdated Russian Soyuz craft which only contains room for 3 astronauts. Even with the shuttle\'s payload, it was designed as a reusable delivery craft. So I don\'t know if it would be able to land with a payload.


Skylab was a lot bigger than this.

Post a Comment

Login with your Gizmag account:

Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our articles