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Spacecraft debris could hit Earth within days

Drawing of HETE's successor, HETE-2, in orbit
Drawing of HETE's successor, HETE-2, in orbit  

By Peter Dykstra
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- Portions of a spacecraft from a failed 1996 mission could fall back to Earth between Friday and Tuesday, according to NASA predictions. The space agency could not pinpoint the exact time and place.

NASA's High Energy Transient Experiment (HETE) was launched in November 1996 to study gamma-ray bursts -- frequent flashes of high energy that cross the universe. The joint Argentine-U.S. project failed when the spacecraft did not detach from the final stage of the Pegasus rocket that launched it into space.

The spacecraft, with the third stage still attached to it, weighs 1,177 pounds (535 kg). NASA expects that most of the spacecraft will burn up as it falls through the atmosphere. But four stainless steel batteries weighing a total of 33 pounds (15kg) could survive, NASA said Thursday.

Where the debris may strike is unknown. NASA has had no contact with the failed spacecraft since 1996, and has no means of controlling or plotting the re-entry. The agency's rough estimate of re-entry is 7 a.m. EDT Sunday, but it warns that this estimate could be off by as much as 48 hours in either direction.

Working with U.S. Space Command, the military agency that monitors the location of spacecraft and space junk, NASA will post updated information at

According to U.S. Space Command, there are nearly 3,000 satellites and spacecraft now in orbit around Earth, carrying out communications, remote sensing, and other functions.

Some estimates on the amount of loose space junk -- debris from space and satellite operations -- exceed 100,000 pieces near Earth or orbiting the planet.

After the failed 1996 mission, the HETE project was reconstituted, and the replacement spacecraft HETE-2 was launched in 2000.

While much is still unknown about gamma ray bursts, recent research has suggested they may originate from supernovas, or dying stars.




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