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NASA: Location of satellite debris not determined

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 7:58 PM EDT, Sat September 24, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Location of debris is still not determined
  • A man in Hawaii says he thinks he saw pieces fall from the sky
  • About 26 pieces, some weighing hundreds of pounds, were expected to survive re-entry
  • It is not clear exactly where the pieces might have landed

Miami (CNN) -- Kris Rakowski put the dog out late Friday and looked to the skies above his Maple Grove, Minnesota, residence.

He saw lights -- a bunch of them.

"They almost looked like fireballs or fireflies, strobing," Rakowski told CNN Saturday.

The art director, 35, who first began looking for possible signs of a plummeting U.S. satellite around 10 p.m., grabbed his camera.

He's pretty sure the photos he submitted to CNN's iReport were pieces of the satellite, which entered the Earth's atmosphere around that time. "It was a once in a lifetime opportunity," he said.

NASA said the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite's debris fell to Earth between 11:23 p.m. ET Friday and 1:09 a.m. ET Saturday.

The satellite passed over Africa and North America and likely landed off the West Coast of the United States, NASA said.

"The precise re-entry time and location of debris impacts have not been determined," NASA said. "Twenty-six satellite components, weighing a total of about 1,200 pounds, could have survived the fiery re-entry and reach the surface of Earth. However, NASA is not aware of any reports of injury or property damage. "

NASA officials said it's possible the satellite pieces hit the Pacific Ocean. Initial reported sightings of the disintegrating satellite had not proved credible because they were not near the proper track, the agency said.

Reports of suspected sightings emerged from San Antonio, where a TV photographer caught images of bright objects darting rapidly in the night sky, and from Hawaii, where Robert Jeffcoat saw what he believed were two chunks from the satellite.

Jeffcoat was running errands when the first flying object left a thick, white trail that lingered in the sky for about 20 minutes, he said. A second object followed the same path and was "massive," he said.

"It was like a comet, but smoke," he said. "I'm guessing it landed in the ocean, the way it was going."

Mark Matney of NASA's Orbital Debris team in Houston said before the rubbish fell that there was no way to know exactly where the pieces would come down.

"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," Matney said.

NASA said 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," McDowell said.

Pieces of Skylab came down in western Australia in 1979.

Jeffcoat said he was amazed his home of Paia, Maui, seemed to be an ideal place to watch hunks of a satellite rain from the sky.

"Of all the places in the world where it could hit, here it was, in Maui," he said. "It was quite weird."

CNN's John Zarella, Holly Yan, Phil Gast and Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

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