If you’re feeling lucky after NASA’s UARS satellite fell safely from orbit into the middle of the Pacific–rather than into the middle of Portland–let’s hope your luck doesn’t run out. The German Aerospace Center says the retired ROSAT satellite’s orbit is rapidly decaying, and pieces of it could start falling from the sky as early as Friday and up until Monday. That should make for an exciting weekend.
The 2.69-ton ROSAT is roughly the size of a minivan, and though parts of it will burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry, experts think as many as 30 pieces will survive the plunge to Earth. There’s no telling where they might land, of course, and pretty much every bit of real estate between 53 degrees north and 53 degrees south is a candidate landing zone.
See our gallery of the space race’s greatest falls to Earth.
(List compiled by Jonathan’s Space Report.)
That landing will be rough. ROSAT rings the Earth once every 90 minutes. Its reentry speed will be some 17,400 miles per hour, though it will slow considerably as it enters the atmosphere. Moreover, it won’t land in any one place. When UARS returned to Earth last month, two dozen pieces are believed to have scattered across a 500-mile swath of ocean. If ROSAT were to come down upon a populated land area, the impact points would be many.
But remain calm. The odds of that happening are very slim. In fact, the likelihood of someone somewhere on Earth being struck by a piece of ROSAT has been roughly calculated to 1-in-2,000–slightly higher than the odds with UARS because there are more and larger pieces coming down this time. But spread those already-long odds among the billions of people living between 53 degrees north and 53 degrees south, and your personal odds of being struck down by space debris are more like 1-in-14 trillion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.