No, it’s an uncontrollable research satellite crashing through Earth’s atmosphere and coming, possibly, to a neighborhood near you!
What a summer. As I write, hard on the heels of an earthquake, followed by a hurricane, we now await the potential arrival of flaming space debris ranging in size from 1 to 300+ pounds. Are you kidding me? No, it isn’t some skit from Saturday Night Live, this really is happening.
So how exactly have we arrived at this intersection of space and time?
Well, in what should only come as a surprise to newcomers to our planet, the culprit is actually the oldest of causes — human fallibility. But I get too far ahead.
Back in 1991, NASA, using the Space Shuttle Discovery, launched the $740 million Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) — a 35 foot long, 15 foot diameter structure weighing in at a modest 7-tons — to study, according to NASA, “the physical and chemical processes of the Earth’s stratosphere, mesosphere, and lower thermosphere.”
NASA notes, “Before UARS, little was known about the atmospheric region between 80 kilometers and 300 kilometers above the Earth, since radio-equipped balloons would explode at that altitude, and ordinary satellites burn up. Although the mission was originally intended for only a three-year duration, its actual deployment was long enough to observe an entire 11-year solar cycle.”
By December 2005, UARS had run out of gas, literally. With the little fuel left on-board, NASA decommissioned UARS and lowered the satellite’s orbit. NASA had no plan to recover the satellite and fully expected it to passively orbit Earth until it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up. No harm, no foul.
Fast forward to 2011 and surprise, surprise. The satellite will indeed re-enter the atmosphere but will not burn up completely. NASA now estimates the satellite will break into more than 100 pieces as it enters the atmosphere, at a speed of about 5 miles per second, with approximately twenty-six of the heaviest pieces reaching the ground. The debris could be scattered over an area about 500 miles long somewhere in an area stretching from lower Canada to southern South America. Incidentally, the majority of the world’s population lives there.
The good news, according to NASA orbital debris scientist Mark Matney, is that most of the area is covered in water and there are vast regions of empty land, which is great if you are not the U.S. Navy or merchant shipping or had plans to go fishing or hiking in the wilderness. Mr. Matney goes on to say, “If someone is lucky enough to be near the re-entry at nighttime, they’ll get quite a show.”
So, if you haven’t experienced all the tumultuous events you need this summer, put on your helmet, track shoes, and get ready. Maybe I will get lucky and something will hit that old car out back.