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NASA refines satellite crash course, a bit
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Sept 22, 2011

NASA on Thursday refined the crash course of a six-ton defunct satellite, saying it is likely to miss North America, though its exact landing spot remains unknown.

The careening space junk, which NASA insists poses little risk of hurting someone, is orbiting Earth every hour and a half, and is expected to fall sometime on Friday.

"Re-entry is expected sometime during the afternoon of September 23, Eastern Daylight Time. The satellite will not be passing over North America during that time period," NASA said its latest update issued Thursday at 7:44 am (1144 GMT).

"It is still too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with any more certainty, but predictions will become more refined in the next 24 to 36 hours."

More frequent updates are scheduled for 12, six and two hours before it lands.

All but 26 pieces of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) are expected to burn up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

The surviving chunks will include titanium fuel tanks, beryllium housing and stainless steel batteries and wheel rims. The parts may weigh as little as two pounds (one kilogram) or as much as 350 pounds (158 kilograms), NASA said.

Orbital debris scientists say the pieces will fall somewhere between 57 north latitude and 57 south latitude, which covers most of the populated world. The debris footprint is expected to span 500 miles (800 kilometers).

The risk to human life and property from UARS is "extremely small," NASA said, adding that in 50 years of space exploration no one has ever been confirmed hurt by falling space junk.

There is a one in 3,200 chance that someone, somewhere in the world will be hit, according to NASA.

The US Department of Defense is monitoring its path and keeping all relevant federal agencies informed, including the US space agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"No consideration ever was given to shooting it down," NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said.

The craft contains no fuel and so is not expected to explode on impact.

UARS is the biggest NASA spacecraft to come back in three decades, after Skylab fell in western Australia in 1979, but orbital debris experts say similar sized objects fall back to Earth about once per year.

NASA has warned anyone who comes across what they believe may be UARS debris not to touch it but to contact authorities for assistance.

Space law professor Frans von der Dunk from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Law told AFP that the United States will likely have to pay damages to any country where the debris falls.

"The damage to be compensated is essentially without limit," von der Dunk said, referring to the 1972 Liability Convention to which the US is one of 80 state signatories.

"Damage here concerns 'loss of life, personal injury or other impairment of health; or loss of or damage to property of States or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international intergovernmental organizations.'"

However, the issue could get thornier if the debris causes damage in a country that is not part of the convention.

"The number of countries so far theoretically at risk is rather large, so there may be an issue if damage would be caused to a state not being party to the Liability Convention," he said.

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Falling satellite meant for shuttle grab
Cape Canaveral, Fla. (UPI) Sep 22, 2011 - A satellite expected to rain debris on the Earth Friday could have been retrieved but the option was discarded after the 2003 Columbia accident, NASA said.

The 6.5-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite was designed in the 1980s with grapple fixtures so space shuttle robot arms could deploy and retrieve it, in the same way the Hubble telescope has been retrieved several times for repairs, Florida Today reported Thursday.

The intention was to bring the large satellite home at the end of its scientific mission, but NASA abandoned the plan as it reduced its shuttle mission schedule after the loss of Columbia and seven astronauts.

"In the post-Columbia era, the shuttle was devoted to building the (International) Space Station. Only one non-station flight, the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, was flown after a thorough risk evaluation," NASA spokesman Michael Curie said Wednesday.

The satellite, launched by the shuttle Discovery in 1991, operated for 14 years, much longer than expected, and wasn't decommissioned until 2005 when NASA still was struggling to return the shuttle fleet to service.

"Capturing and returning UARS on a space shuttle was not considered an option due to the issues identified after the loss of Columbia," Curie said.

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NASA bus-sized satellite to crash-land this week
Washington (AFP) Sept 21, 2011
What goes up must come down. But where? That's the big question when it comes to a 20-year-old NASA satellite the size of a tour bus which is careening toward Earth and set to crash-land later this week. The US Department of Defense and NASA are tracking the six-ton spacecraft, which poses a one-in-3,200 risk of hitting one of the seven billion people on the planet, the US space agency s ... read more

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