Where Will NASA Satellite Crash?

Even now, just a day or two from the end of the UARS satellite’s life, NASA still cannot say where it will come down.

They can send a probe to Mars and specify, after a trip of more than 100 million miles, the crater in which it will land. But Earth’s upper atmosphere, with its roiling air currents, is much more complicated. (A routine solar flare, for instance, can make the upper atmosphere expand and slow the satellite, though we on the ground are well insulated.)

Analytical Graphics, Inc., a firm in Exton, Pa., that creates computer animations so engineers know what they’re working on, has sent a very helpful video showing how UARS is likely to come down. Take a look. It’s most helpful at showing how the satellite orbits while the planet turns beneath it, and it gives an idea of how the satellite is likely to break up.

NASA keeps up the reminder that the odds of you personally getting hit by what remains of the satellite are infinitesimal — roughly one in 22 trillion. The chances that one of the 7 billion people on this Earth will get hit — someone, somewhere — are one in 3,200, and that’s the figure most often quoted.

Still, in the 50-plus years since Sputnik 1, NASA insists it still knows of only one person ever hit by space debris. I featured her in a story 10 years ago, when Russia’s Mir space station was doing what UARS is now.

Her name was Lottie Williams — a feisty, friendly woman from Tulsa, Okla., who felt a tap on the shoulder from a piece of rocket insulation when she was out power walking. She was unhurt, though she said her pride was: The little piece of burnt foam on the ground next to her turned out to be from a booster nozzle, not a star.

“I was a little disappointed — well, I was a lot disappointed because, you know, I was thinking I had something celestial,” she said. “And here I got something man-made, you know? And nobody even knows anything about it.”

Below is a strictly-unscientific ballot; please feel free to vote or write a comment at bottom.