Clifton College Website

Student Contributions

Elizabeth Edwards
Upper Sixth
West Town

Plummeting satellite: hit or miss?

Plummeting satellite: hit or miss?

NASA’S upper atmosphere research satellite (UARS) fell to earth in the early hours of Saturday morning, the 24th of September. It weighed over 6 tonnes and was the size of a bus and yet was allowed to tumble uncontrolled towards Earth.

The UARS’ mission was to study the Earth’s atmosphere and the protective ozone layer. It entered orbit on the 15th September 1991 at an altitude of 370 miles and rotated around the earth for 14 years and 91 days before being decommissioned in 2005.

The UARS was expected to break into 26 parts, some of which could have weighed more than 20 stone. The satellite potentially could have reached speeds of over 107 metres a second as it plummeted towards the planet which, according to BBC news, is faster than France’s high-speed trains and 10 times faster than Usain Bolt. However, why were we not we being told to stay indoors or wear metal helmets? Because according to NASA, the chances of a human getting hit are one in 3200 and the chances of you specifically getting hit are one in 23 trillion. So there was no need for panic, you are more likely to win the lottery than get struck down by a piece of space debris.

The majority of the satellite would have burned up on re-entry and the remnants were scattered over an 800km path. Seeming as the majority of the Earth’s surface is 70% water there is a highly unlikely chance that it would have hit you, but if you were that worried then the safest place would have been “57 degrees latitude north (Scotland or Quebec) or south (further south than the southern tip of Argentina)”.

Stephen Cole, a spokesperson for NASA in Washington DC, told the BBC that "You have to remember that they’re very, very small pieces, even though the original satellite was large — as large as a bus. Most of that burns up in the atmosphere and just a few dozen pieces survive. They’re highly damaged, and if they’re in the ocean — they’re gone."

According to NASA the satellite came down between 03:23 and 05:09 GMT, with most estimating it fell around 4:15am. The Joint Space Operations Centre (JSPOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California monitored the re-entry and it’s believed that it crashed deep into the abyss of the North Pacific. According to BBC news however, “if UARS re-entered many minutes after 04:16, it is possible debris could have reached the American landmass”.

Although, if it so happens that a piece of debris has strayed onto your path, NASA advises you not to touch it and to “contact your local law enforcement official for assistance”. And do not go thinking that you can sell it on eBay, the Space Treaty of 1967 states that the US government retains ownership of any space junk which falls from the sky and can take possession of it if needed.

3 October 2011

valid xhtml  |  valid css