Saturday 10 September 2011

Watch UARS - it's dropping!

Several news outlets are abuzz (e.g. here and here) about UARS, the defunct Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, which is in the last days of its life.

click image to enlarge

Launched on Space Shuttle STS-48 in 1991, it was shut down in 2005 and it's orbit lowered to speed up decay.

That moment of decay is now near, with the 6 tonnes satellite expected to re-enter into our atmosphere in the last days of September or first days of October. At this moment , it is not possible to predict the moment of decay more exactly than this, and hence it is impossible to say where (over which part of the world) the re-entry will take place. At the moment of writing, the satellite already has come down to a 244 x 275 km orbit. The nominal decay date is currently projected to be around September 28-29 but has an uncertainty of several days.

UARS is that big, that parts of it might actually survive re-entry and impact on land or sea. Modelling by NASA suggests up to 532 kg of material, broken up into tens of pieces, might survive re-entry, with the biggest piece being perhaps in the order of just over 150 kg. The odds of this debris hitting someone are small however.

UARS is a large satellite that can be quite bright and easily seen by the naked eye: in the past, I have seen it attain brightnesses up to  mag. +0.5, as bright as the brightest stars in the sky.

The image above shows UARS photographed by me on 16 June 2010 from Leiden, the Netherlands, when it showed a small flare.

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