Updated 2:40 pm ET, Saturday, September 24
The 20-year-long voyage of NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) has finally come to an end with a great big splash. The 6-ton satellite re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere early Saturday morning and plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
NASA isn’t yet sure exactly where the satellite’s watery grave is, though. Scroll to the bottom for their best guess, the final ground track map.
According to the latest update from the agency, made at 11:37 am ET, Saturday, September 24:
“The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California saaid 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.”
An earlier update from the agency put the satellite’s re-entry over “Canada and Africa as well as vast portions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans during that period.”
The agency noted that the U.S. was not in the range of debris.
“If debris fell on land (and that’s still a BIG if), Canada is most likely area,” NASA tweeted. The agency also tweeted a warning to a follower who asked about selling any potential findings of debris on eBay: “Any pieces of #UARS found are still the property of the country that made it. You’ll have to give ‘em back to U.S.”
Videos of alleged debris captured by amaterus re-entering over Italy and The Netherlands have made their way up on YouTube, but there is of course debate over the veracity of the videos. A video captured by someone in Blaine, Washington, seems more likely to have captured a real piece of the satellite on its way down, given the location of where NASA says it re-entered.
The Aerospace Corporation, an Air Force partner nonprofit, put the re-entry off the coast of Antarctica, near Australia.
Most of the 6-ton satellite was expected to have burned up during re-entry, but up to 26 debris could have made it through, including one 300-lb. chunk. The debris could have been scattered over 500 miles.
As Space.com points out, the satellite was the biggest piece of space junk to fall uncontrolled to the ground in 32 years (though nowhere near as large as the 135-ton MIR satellite, which was brought down in a controlled fashion in March 2001. About 20 tons of debris made it back to the Earth that time.)
UARS was launched into orbit September 12, 1991, from the Space Shuttle Discovery. It orbited the Earth 78,000 times and took samples of the atmosphere for 12 years before being decommissioned in 2005.
According to NASA, UARS scientific accomplishments include giving us:
“…a better understanding of the energy input, chemistry and dynamics of the upper atmosphere and the coupling between the upper and lower atmosphere. As the first satellite dedicated to studying stratospheric science, UARS focused on the processes that lead to ozone depletion…”
UARS may be gone, but its scientific contributions remain. Meanwhile, now NASA has to figure out how to manage the 500,000 pieces of debris circling the Earth to avoid having them damage other, working satellites and scientific instruments.
Late update: NASA held a press conference at 2 pm ET on the re-entry in which NASA chief scientist for orbital debris Nick Johnson said that the re-entry likely occurred at 12:16 ET, (0416 GMT) and the agency believes the satellite re-entered at 31 degrees north latitude and 219 degrees east longitude, putting it at about 600 miles off the coast of California.
However, the satellite also passed over Africa, Canada and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans before coming to that spot during its re-entry window.
“The only way debris probably could’ve reached land is if re-entry occurred after 0416 GMT,” Johnson said. “There were several folks along the western coast of North America tracking the satellite to see if they could see it, and every one of those attempts came up negative. That would suggest re-entry did occur before it reached the North American coast.”
Johnson also added that he had seen “no credible reports” of people having even seen the satellite’s descent, let alone recovered any debris, but that the U.S. government would check into every report made by someone along the satellite’s predicted re-entry path.
“We may never know,” exactly where or when it re-entered, Johnson noted.
Check out NASA’s final map of the satellite’s path below and or head over to the NASA website for the full, albeit brief, PDF on its descent.