National Geographic News
The UARS satellite is deployed into orbit in 1992.

An astronaut picture of the UARS satellite being deployed in 1991.

Photograph courtesy NASA

Traci Watson

for National Geographic News

Published September 24, 2011

Defying predictions one last time, NASA's doomed UARS satellite dove through Earth's atmosphere late last night over the North Pacific Ocean, off the U.S. West Coast, the space agency says. (Also see "Space Debris: Five Unexpected Objects That Fell to Earth.")

As recently as Friday morning, U.S. officials had forecast that the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, or UARS, would fall out of the sky in the late afternoon or early evening Friday, eastern time.

(See "NASA Satellite Falling Faster Due to Solar Activity.")

But the satellite shifted position as it tumbled toward the planet, forcing scientists to throw out their earlier time estimates.

NASA said early Saturday that UARS fell out of orbit sometime between 11:23 p.m. and 1:09 a.m. ET.

Amateur satellite trackers in places such as San Antonio, Texas, and northern Minnesota reported catching glimpses of UARS as it made its final, doomed circles around Earth.

Though the spacecraft plummeted over the Pacific, it's still not clear exactly where debris from the satellite has landed. Pieces of the satellite will be strung along a debris "footprint" stretching 500 miles (800 kilometers).

So far there are "no reports of any damage or injury," NASA said via Twitter close to midday Saturday.

Satellite Pieces Not For Sale

UARS, which weighed more than six tons, was lofted into orbit by the space shuttle Discovery in 1991. The craft recorded data on Earth's atmosphere until it was switched off in 2005.

Some 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of debris from the satellite were projected to survive the superheated descent through the atmosphere. The biggest intact piece, NASA said, would probably be a 300-pound (140-kilogram) chunk of the spacecraft's structure.

NASA warned the curious not to touch any pieces of the spacecraft that may have made it to the ground, because of the risk of sharp edges.

The space agency also tried to head off sales of UARS remnants on Internet auction sites such as eBay.

"Any pieces of UARS found are still the property of the country that made it," NASA warned via Twitter this morning. "You'll have to give 'em back to U.S."

Also see "Space Station to Fall to Earth—Find Out How and Where" >>

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