I’ll admit, I was skeptical when I first learned that a flaming, 6.5-ton bulk of metal—approximately the size of a school bus—was scheduled to come barreling through the lower atmosphere and into our world sometime today. Born in the mid-eighties, my only references to falling space ephemera are Elijah Wood’s pre-Middle-earth asteroid romp and a 151 minute-long Michael Bay melodrama staring Ben Affleck’s jaw line.
Launched in 1991 and decommissioned in 2005, NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) may indeed be paying an “uncontrolled” visit to your neighborhood sometime today. While tracking the satellite’s progress and estimated trajectory has been made easy by no less than 20 websites (and an app for Android) and the chances of getting bonked on the head are about 1 in 3,200, many people are taking the (probably unnecessary) precautions of buying hardhats and fallout umbrellas.
Alarmist as it all sounds, 500,000 documented hunks of cosmic junk to date float around Earth. Space programs since the Cold War have had to deal with fallout. Mostly this stuff just stays in orbit, but every once in awhile bits of space crud collide—into one another or, occasionally, us.
To herald the UARS’ return to Earth, I decided to take a look at five of the most notable space junk collisions of all time.
Fengyun-1C Weather Satellite (January 11, 2007)
Intentionally destroyed by the Chinese government during a test for an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), the obliteration of the Fengyun-1C has been documented as the most prolific fragmentation of space junk in five decades of space exploration history. The explosion created 900 or more pieces of shrapnel and extends over 2,292 miles, or most of Earth’s lower orbit.
Iridium 33 satellite and Cosmos 2251 (February 10, 2009)
When these US and Russian communication satellites collided 490 miles above Siberia at well over 15,000 mph, it was the first known ever collision between two space artifacts. Ever.
Lottie Williams- Delta II (January 22, 1997)
While walking through a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma at 3:30 in the morning, Lottie Williams became the first person to be hit by space junk when a piece of Delta II’s fuel tank insulation hit her upon re-entry. “We were still walking through the park when I felt a tapping on my shoulder,” Williams later explained, thinking the soda can-sized debris was a human attacker.
Skylab (July 1979)
When John Belushi re-enacts your collision with Earth using plastic models on Weekend Update, you know you’ve made it. The re-entry of this space station, measuring up to the size of a small house, prompted worldwide parties involving bulls-eye t-shirts and Skylab crash helmets. Hell, it was on the cover of TIME. The station landed southeast of Perth, Australia where the government fined the United States $400 for littering, and displayed a piece of the wreckage at the annual Miss Universe Pageant.
This satellite/space observatory hasn’t even broken Earth’s lower atmosphere and it’s already creating enough buzz to rival Skylab. Weighing in at 6.5 tons, NASA has predicted this heap of space junk will miss the western hemisphere entirely and will mostly likely land in the ocean, not on you.
By Lara Heintz