NASA Climate Satellite Is Falling

09/22/2011 11:31 PM ET

A NASA climate satellite is falling outside North America and expected to crash on Friday. It weighs six and a half tons and has slowly been losing its orbit for a few years now. The space agency has updated the forecast for the crash landing for later this week.

The satellite is called UARS or Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite and was launched in 1991. When it completed its mission, it was shut down in 2005.

NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey confirmed with earlier today that the reason UARS is expected to fall early in its re-entry window is because of the sharp rise in solar activity. The effects from the sun can create an extra drag on satellites in space because they can heat the Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to expand, agency officials have said.

NASA says that it is not known where exactly it will return to earth but should be outside the North American continent. Upon re-entry, it should break up into about 26 pieces, which will be mostly titanium and onboard tank pieces. There is a 1 in 3,200 chance of any debris striking a person on earth.

“Look at how much of Earth is covered with water,” Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director of the Secure World Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful use of outer space, told this week. “There’s a really good chance it’s going to go straight into the ocean.”

This is not the first time space junk has fallen back to earth. Ray Williamson, executive director of the Secure World Foundation told, “There was Spacelab a long time ago. There was also the Russian Salyut spacecraft that came down. And, if I recall with Salyut, there wasn’t a lot of control with that one. The issue is, NASA would like to have enough fuel left, but in the case of UARS, the fuel ran out several years ago, so slowly, but surely it succumbed to solar pressure, and the activity created enough drag that we’re now seeing it tumble to Earth.”

The $750 million UARS mission was designed to measure ozone and other chemical compounds found in Earth’s ozone layer in order to understand how the upper atmosphere affects our planet.

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