NASA said it is working to determine when on Saturday its 6-ton satellite will hit the Earth.
The satellite was on a collision course with Earth clung Friday, apparently flipping position in its ever-lower orbit and stalling its death plunge.
The old research spacecraft was targeted to crash through the atmosphere sometime Friday night or early Saturday, putting Canada and Africa in the potential crosshairs, although most of the satellite should burn up during re-entry. The United States wasn’t entirely out of the woods; the possible strike zone skirted Washington state.
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“It just doesn’t want to come down,” said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
McDowell said the satellite’s delayed demise demonstrates how unreliable predictions can be. That said, “the best guess is that it will still splash in the ocean, just because there’s more ocean out there.”
Until Friday, increased solar activity was causing the atmosphere to expand and the 35-foot, bus-size satellite to free fall more quickly. But late Friday morning, NASA said the sun was no longer the major factor in the rate of descent and that the satellite’s position, shape or both had changed by the time it slipped down to a 100-mile orbit.
“In the last 24 hours, something has happened to the spacecraft,” said NASA orbital debris scientist Mark Matney.
On Friday night, NASA said it expected the satellite to come crashing down between 11:45 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. EDT Saturday. It was going to be passing over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans at that time, as well as Canada and Africa.
“The risk to public safety is very remote,” NASA said in a statement.
Any surviving wreckage is expected to be limited to a 500-mile swath.
The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or UARS, will be the biggest NASA spacecraft to crash back to Earth, uncontrolled, since the post-Apollo 75-ton Skylab space station and the more than 10-ton Pegasus 2 satellite, both in 1979.
Russia’s 135-ton Mir space station slammed through the atmosphere in 2001, but it was a controlled dive into the Pacific.
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