TUCSON, AZ (KOLD) - A large piece of space junk is forecasted to hit Earth's atmosphere tonight. The idea is to break up and burn up the now defunct NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS). This 6-ton satellite went dead in 2005 and has been slowly falling in orbit ever since.
The satellite was forecasted to hit this afternoon but has slowed in it's rate of descent and is now expected to begin burning up in the atmosphere sometime tonight. NASA expects the spacecraft to break into numerous pieces and burn up during re-entry, but not all of it may disappear high above the Earth. NASA scientists estimate 26 pieces of the satellite, made with higher heat resistant material, could survive the fall. That means some of the parts could hit the Earth. NASA says the risk to public safety or property is extremely small and since the 1950s, there have been no confirmed reports of an injury or significant property damage resulting from re-entering space objects. Other satellites, including the Mir Space Station, have hit the top of the atmosphere, mostly burning up upon re-entry. With over 70% of the Earth covered in water, rather than land, the odds are any remaining pieces will make a splash in one of the oceans.
Sending space junk, such as this satellite, into the atmosphere is a common practice. Manmade debris circling the Earth can pose a threat to spacecraft and working satellites. Burning unused pieces up in the atmosphere is one way to reduce the amount of debris. NASA has an entire department dedicated to tracking orbital debris.
UARS was launched in 1991 from the Space Shuttle and was in use until 2005. Data and research from UARS included tracking ozone levels, distribution of aerosols in the atmosphere (e.g. from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption), and energy from the sun hitting the atmosphere. Other NASA satellites with updated technology are now used for gathering these kind of data.
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