NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) has finally returned home after two decades in orbit, and it couldn’t have crash-landed in a better place: a 500-mile-wide swath of the South Pacific. The falling six-ton satellite–which had been expected to re-enter the atmosphere for a couple of weeks, causing some degree of worry–plunged into a part of the world that is virtually uninhabited, mere minutes after reports said it might come crashing down in North America, NASA officials said yesterday.

See our gallery of the space race’s greatest falls to Earth.

(List compiled by Jonathan’s Space Report.)

NASA has been tracking UARS for some time now as the decommissioned satellite’s orbit has been decaying. Much of the satellite was expected to burn up on re-entry, but experts estimated that roughly two-dozen pieces of the massive satellite would survive and could potentially be a threat to people or objects on the ground. Given UARS’s speed and the many variables involved (this is a decommissioned satellite, after all, so re-entry was completely uncontrolled) there was no telling exactly when or where UARS might land.

On Saturday, when the final descent began, previous calculations had placed the crash window across a large swath of northwestern North America. The Internet rumor machine fired up and sightings across Canada and the Pacific Northwest proliferated. But by that point updated U.S. Air Force calculations placed the satellite thousands of miles away in another hemisphere, and NASA has confirmed those calculations. UARS is now resting peacefully in the South Pacific, somewhere southwest of Christmas Island were small islands are scattered across a lot of water.

The difference between Seattle and Samoa? Just a few minutes. NASA said UARS came in for its rough landing several minutes earlier than they had projected. What they won’t say is how they know this–they referred those questions to the USAF, which also isn’t talking. Were DoD missile tracking assets employed in tracking UARS? The Air Force would rather not say at this point, but one would think something like this would be good practice.

UARS is not the first piece of man-made space hardware to come crashing back to Earth, and it won’t be the last. In late October or early November a German astronomy satellite will make its uncontrolled final plunge back to Earth. Though smaller than UARS, more pieces are expected to survive re-entry (a total of 30 are expected, possibly including sharp pieces of mirror). Let’s hope that one finds a nice stretch of uninhabited ocean as well.



Name: Skylab Reentry Date: July 11, 1979 Reentry Location: South Western Australia Size: 79 metric tons Type: Uncontrolled reentry The American space station’s reentry was celebrated by media in the United States, with two competing San Francisco newspapers even offering rewards for parts or damaged property.

Salyut 7

Name: Salyut 7/Kosmos 1686 Reentry Date: February 7, 1991 Reentry Location: Capitán Bermúdez, Argentina Size: 40 metric tons Type: Large, uncontrolled reentry The Soviet space station had been uninhabited for almost 5 years when it returned to Earth, along with the unmanned spacecraft Kosmos 1686, showering a small Argentinian town with debris.


Name: Mir Reentry Date: March 23, 2001 Reentry Location: South Pacific Ocean Size: 120 metric tons Type: Large, controlled destructive reentry Mir, despite efforts to save the 15-year-old Russian space station for commercial purposes, reentered the atmosphere over Fiji, and fragments fell into the South Pacific.

Saturn S-II-13

Name:Saturn S-II-13 (Saturn V Stage) Reentry Date: January 11, 1975 Reentry Location: Atlantic Size: 49 metric tons Type: Uncontrolled reentry The S-II was the second stage used on the massive Saturn V rocket, famous for launching Apollo astronauts to the moon. The S-II was used for the 13 launches of the Saturn V, including the 49 metric ton stage that reentered on January 11, 1975.

Cosmos 1402

Name: Cosmos 1402 (nuclear spy satellite) Reentry Date: January 23, 1983 Reentry Location: Indian Ocean Size: 4 metric tons Type: Uncontrolled reentry Satellite nuclear reactors were normally jettisoned to a safe “parking orbit” when the satellites reentered, but Cosmos 1402’s reactor remained attached until breaking up over the Indian Ocean. Here, an American orbital analyst monitors the satellites trajectory from NORAD.

Mars 96

Name:Mars 96 (Mars probe) Reentry Date: November 17, 1996 Reentry Location: Bolivia, Chile, Pacific Ocean Size: 7 metric tons Type: Uncontrolled reentry Mars 96 was a Russian satellite meant to send four probes to Mars, but failed and returned to Earth crashing into an unknown location in Bolivia, Chile, or the Pacific. No parts of the spacecraft, including its 200 grams of plutonium-238 fuel, have been found.

Space Shuttle Columbia

Name:Columbia (STS-107) Reentry Date: February 1, 2003 Reentry Location: Texas, Louisiana Size: 106 metric tons Type: Large, controlled, destructive reentry During the reentry of STS-107, damage to the shuttle’s left wing shielding during launch allowed hot gases to enter the wing structure of the shuttle, leading to the disintegration of the vehicle. All seven crew members were killed, and debris was scattered over northern Texas and eastern Louisiana.