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NASA satellite is expected to fall to Earth soon

September 18, 2011 |  6:10 am

UARS

Sometime soon -- say around Sept. 23, give or take a day or two -- a 6-ton, 35-foot-long satellite will fall out of the sky, NASA warns.

But don't be alarmed. Donald J. Kessler, a retired senior scientist for orbital debris research at NASA, says you've got nothing to worry about. The chance of getting hit is remote. Very remote.

That's not to say NASA isn't taking the situation seriously.

In a news release on its website, the space agency said it will post updates weekly up until four days before the anticipated reentry, then daily until about 24 hours before reentry, and then at about 12-hours, six hours and two hours before the thing actually plummets to earth.

The updates will come from the Joint Space Operations Center of U.S. Strategic Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a group that works around the clock "detecting, identifying and tracking all man-made objects in Earth-orbit, including space junk."

For his part, Kessler thinks all the fuss is a little ridiculous.

In an interview with The Times, he said that about one piece of space debris, or space junk if you prefer, falls out of orbit daily. The public generally doesn't hear about such events because the debris usually burns up in Earth's atmosphere. Kessler said it's almost impossible to predict where a piece of space debris that does not burn up in the atmosphere might fall.

"These things make it around the Earth once every 90 minutes," he said. "It could enter anywhere on that path, so you can't predict where it will be."

The unpredictable satellite in question is NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (you can call it  UARS), which was launched into space in September 1991 and was decommissioned in 2005. For the record, no one thinks a 6-ton satellite will come hurling out of the sky in one piece. Scientists expect the spacecraft to break into roughly two-dozen pieces during its reentry.

Not all of those pieces will burn up.

If you're lucky enough to find a piece of the satellite, you cannot legally keep it or sell it. Even out of orbit, that satellite is property of NASA.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image: This undated NASA handout image shows a conceptual image of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or UARS, launched on Sept. 15, 1991. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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