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NASA: Re-entry of satellite into atmosphere imminent

By John Zarella, CNN
updated 10:59 PM EDT, Fri September 23, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Re-entry is expected between 11:45 p.m. Friday and 12:45 a.m. Saturday ET, NASA says
  • The space agency still can't say with certainty where the satellite's remnants will land
  • About 26 pieces, some weighing hundreds of pounds, are expected to survive reentry

Miami (CNN) -- A defunct satellite plummeting toward Earth is expected to re-enter the atmosphere between 11:45 p.m. Friday and 12:45 a.m. Saturday ET, NASA reported late Friday evening.

"During that time period, the satellite will be passing over Canada and Africa, as well as vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The risk to public safety is very remote," the space agency said.

The United States is once again an unlikely but potential target for the 26 pieces of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, expected to survive the descent. Those pieces, made of stainless steel, titanium and beryllium that won't burn, will range from about 10 pounds to hundreds of pounds, according to NASA.

"There is a low probability any debris that survives re-entry will land in the United States," NASA headquarters said, "but the possibility cannot be discounted because of this changing rate of descent."

Mark Matney of NASA's Orbital Debris team in Houston said there's no way to know exactly where the pieces will come down.

"Keep in mind, they won't be traveling at those high orbital velocities. As they hit the air, they tend to slow down. ... They're still traveling fast, a few tens to hundreds of miles per hour, but no longer those tremendous orbital velocities," he explained.

Because the satellite travels thousands of miles in a matter of minutes as it orbits -- even just before it begins re-entry -- it will be impossible to pinpoint the exact location the pieces will come down. On top of that, Matney said, the satellite is not stable.

"Part of the problem is, the spacecraft is tumbling in unpredictable ways, and it is very difficult to very precisely pinpoint where it's coming down even right before the re-entry."

FAA: Pilots watch for falling satellite
Where will satellite debris strike?

Because water covers 70% of the Earth's surface, NASA has said that most if not all of the surviving debris will land in water. Even if pieces strike dry land, there's very little risk any of it will hit people.

However, in an abundance of caution, the Federal Aviation Administration released an advisory Thursday warning pilots about the falling satellite, calling it a potential hazard.

"It is critical that all pilots/flight crew members report any observed falling space debris to the appropriate (air traffic control) facility and include position, altitude, time and direction of debris observed," the FAA statement said.

The FAA said warnings of this sort typically are sent out to pilots concerning specific hazards they may encounter during flights such as air shows, rocket launches, kites and inoperable radio navigational aids.

NASA says space debris the size of the satellite's components re-enters the atmosphere about once a year. Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell noted that the satellite is far from being the biggest space junk to come back.

"This is nothing like the old Skylab scare of the '70s, when you had a 70-ton space station crashing out of the sky. So, I agree with the folks in Houston. It's nothing to be worried about," McDowell said.

Pieces of Skylab came down in western Australia in 1979.

The only wild card McDowell sees is if somehow a chunk hits a populated area.

"If the thing happens to come down in a city, that would be bad. The chances of it causing extensive damage or injuring someone are much higher."

NASA said that once the debris hits the atmosphere 50 miles up, it will take only a matter of minutes before the surviving pieces hit the Earth.

CNN's Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

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