Chicken Little Was Right – The Sky Really Is Falling – UARS

September 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Posted in Miscellaneous, Regular Feature, Science News | 1 Comment

Hey gang, here’s some fun news for Science Thursday this week. In fact, let me start the whole piece with a kind of a fun little riddle. Ready? Here we go.

What is 20 years old, weighs 6.5 tons, is the size of a school bus, and is going to fall out of the sky on Friday and instantly crush to death anyone unfortunate enough to be standing under it? If you said a space elephant, you were wrong. If you said the UARS satellite launched into orbit in 1991 by our friends at NASA, well then you get a gold star.

If the elephant is scared enough, you'll have plenty of warning.

What is the UARS? (You always ask the best questions) The UARS is the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite. It was launched into orbit in 1991 on the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-48). It’s official mission was to study Earth’s atmosphere and the ozone layer but like all satellites launched in the late 80s and early 90s that had any kind of cameras aboard, it was likely that it was at least a part time spy satellite as well.

UARS is scheduled to make its re-entry into our atmosphere sometime tomorrow afternoon. They can’t shoot it down because it is already too low in its orbit and that would result in not only satellite parts raining down on an unsuspecting populace, but missile parts as well.

The best part is, they have no idea where it will hit. Following the current trajectory of the defunct satellite it would seem that North America is in the clear. Most of the rest of the world looks like it might still be in  the possible 500 miles landing zone of football sized titanium death bombs. The experts tell us there are at least 26 such flaming projectiles headed toward the surface.

UARS - Planning a murder since 1991

UARS, like most man made satellites, is an oddly and asymmetrically shaped object. The slightest turn or tumble in this massive object could cause a drag or imbalance that would change the trajectory enough that no one could possibly guess the precise location of the debris zone.

NASA warns that if anyone sees a piece or pieces of the satellite falling from the sky, that they should stay inside (because the roof of your house will totally protect you from a flaming metal football moving at 10,000 miles per hour) and to call the authorities immediately. They caution you should never attempt to recover any pieces of a fallen satellite yourself as those pieces may contain radiation many times higher than the lethal limit to humans. (That’s their official position. I just think they hate buying their own stuff back on Ebay myself.) I’m sure it is none too healthy for the local ecology of wherever it manages to land either but one can only hope they have a plan for that.

Despite there being nearly no chance of the satellite falling in North America, FEMA will attempt to feel relevant by staying on alert until UARS makes its final landing. The fact is this particular planet is 3/4 oceans, so the odds of it even hitting land aren’t great. Still it’s good to see FEMA get a chance to play with the equipment and such.

So pull out your hard hats and drink glasses and lets welcome UARS back to Earth sometime tomorrow afternoon (Friday, September 23RD, 2011). It seems Chicken Little was right after all. The sky actually is falling.

I leave you, dear reader, with this brief video of the projected orbit and re-entry of the UARS satellite, courtesy of


Update #10

Fri, 23 Sep 2011 10:45:08 AM EDT

As of 10:30 a.m. EDT on Sept. 23, 2011, the orbit of UARS was 100 miles by 105 miles (160 km by 170 km). Re-entry is expected late Friday, Sept. 23, or early Saturday, Sept. 24, Eastern Daylight Time. Solar activity is no longer the major factor in the satellite’s rate of descent. The satellite’s orientation or configuration apparently has changed, and that is now slowing its descent. There is a low probability any debris that survives re-entry will land in the United States, but the possibility cannot be discounted because of this changing rate of descent. It is still too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with any certainty, but predictions will become more refined in the next 12 to 18 hours.

Still not expected to hit the U.S. but they kind of admit they have no idea really. Now its a weekender. Watch out now.

Update #11

Fri, 23 Sep 2011 07:30:46 PM EDT

As of 7 p.m. EDT on Sept. 23, 2011, the orbit of UARS was 90 miles by 95 miles (145 km by 150 km). Re-entry is expected between 11 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, and 3 a.m., Sept. 24, Eastern Daylight Time (3 a.m. to 7 a.m. GMT). During that time period, the satellite will be passing over Canada, Africa and Australia, as well as vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The risk to public safety is very remote.

Update #15

Sat, 24 Sep 2011 03:46:42 AM EDT

NASA’s decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California said the satellite penetrated the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. The precise re-entry time and location are not yet known with certainty.

Update #16

Sat, 24 Sep 2011 11:37:25 AM EDT

NASA’s decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California said the satellite entered the atmosphere over the North Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of the United States. The precise re-entry time and location of any debris impacts are still being determined. NASA is not aware of any reports of injury or property damage.

This is your source for official information on the re-entry of UARS. All information posted here has been verified with a government agency or law enforcement.

NASA will conduct a media telecon at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the re-entry. The telecon will be streamed live at

Last update on UARS. It’s a little anti-climactic. They’re pretty sure it broke up over the northern Pacific without making landfall sometime in the wee hours of the morning. Around midnight EDT the satellite flamed out and was consigned to a watery grave. I suppose it was the best possible outcome but it would have been way funnier if some hippies found chunks of it a piece of it hit Joe Dirt in the trunk of his Charger.

At any rate, here is the final press release from NASA.

NASA’s UARS Re-Enters Earth’s Atmosphere

WASHINGTON – NASA’s decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. Sept. 24, 20 years and nine days after its launch on a 14-year mission that produced some of the first long-term records of chemicals in the atmosphere.

The precise re-entry time and location of debris impacts have not been determined. During the re-entry period, the satellite passed from the east coast of Africa over the Indian Ocean, then the Pacific Ocean, then across northern Canada, then across the northern Atlantic Ocean, to a point over West Africa. The vast majority of the orbital transit was over water, with some flight over northern Canada and West Africa.

Six years after the end of its productive scientific life, UARS broke into pieces during re-entry, and most of it up burned in the atmosphere. Data indicates the satellite likely broke apart and landed in the Pacific Ocean far off the U.S. coast. 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.

The Operations Center for JFCC-Space, the Joint Functional Component Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., which works around the clock detecting, identifying and tracking all man-made objects in Earth orbit, tracked the movements of UARS through the satellite’s final orbits and provided confirmation of re-entry.

“We extend our appreciation to the Joint Space Operations Center for monitoring UARS not only this past week but also throughout its entire 20 years on orbit,” said Nick Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This was not an easy re-entry to predict because of the natural forces acting on the satellite as its orbit decayed. Space-faring nations around the world also were monitoring the satellite’s descent in the last two hours and all the predictions were well within the range estimated by JSpOC.”

by Revmacd For Roqoo Depot – Where Science Meets Science Fiction

1 Comment »

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  1. I heard about this a few weeks back and have been measuring up my roof, just in case one of those solar panels dropped into my backyard. Space Trash = Myri Treasure. … guess not, eh? Glad I read your article before I wound up in NASA’s interrogation chamber.

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