National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, has said that a huge, dead satellite is tumbling slowly to Earth and may smack down somewhere over Africa or Canada late tonight or early Saturday.
On Friday, NASA officials said its the biggest piece of US space junk to fall in 30 years and is heading towards a vast span of territory that includes Africa, Australia and Canada as well as plenty of open ocean.
The US space agency stressed there was a “very remote” risk to the public from the 26 fragments of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, UARS, expected to survive the fiery re-entry into the atmosphere.
According to NASA, “The satellite will be passing over Canada, Africa and Australia, as well as vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The risk to public safety is very remote.”
The Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies at the California-based Aerospace Corporation predicted the re-entry would occur at 0404 GMT Saturday, plus or minus three hours.
The two dozen parts that survive the re-entry may weigh as little as two pounds (one kilogram) or as much as 350 pounds (158 kilograms), NASA said, and the debris field is expected to span 500 miles (800 kilometers).
The tumbling motion of the satellite has made it difficult to narrow down the location. And given that the world is 70 per cent water, an ocean landing was considered likely.
Mark Matney, an orbital debris scientist at NASA said, “In the entire 50 plus year history of the space program, no person has ever been injured by a piece of re-entering space debris.”
“Keep in mind we have bits of debris re-entering the atmosphere every single day.”
The US Department of Defense and NASA were busy tracking the debris and keeping all federal disaster agencies informed, a NASA spokeswoman said.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice Thursday to pilots and flight crews of the potential hazard, and urged them to report any falling space debris and take note of its position and time.
Orbital debris experts say space junk of this size from broken-down satellites and spent rockets tends to fall back to Earth about once a year, though this is the biggest NASA satellite to fall in three decades.
NASA said, “Pieces of UARS landing on Earth will not be very hot. Heating stops 20 miles up, cools after that. UARS contains nothing radioactive but its metal fragments could be sharp.”
The US space agency has warned anyone who comes across what they believe may be UARS debris not to touch it but to contact authorities for assistance.
The risk to public safety or property is extremely small, and safety is NASA’s top priority. Since the beginning of the Space Age in the late-1950s, there have been no confirmed reports of an injury resulting from re-entering space objects. Nor is there a record of significant property damage resulting from a satellite re-entry.