Bad Astronomy

Update: satellite *might* fall on Friday at 22:00 UTC +/- 9 hours

NASA’s UARS satellite will almost certainly plunge back to Earth sometime Friday, September 23. The exact time is still not known, but the window for re-entry is centered at 22:00 UTC (6:00 p.m. Eastern US time) with a 9 hour uncertainty on either side. The Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies puts the satellite off the west coast of South America at that time:

However, this is still very preliminary! In other words, if you live in that area, don’t panic (in fact, odds are you shouldn’t panic at all). The uncertainty is still pretty big, because it’s very difficult to pin down just when and where a satellite will come down. The +/- 9 hour window is a pretty clear indication of that. Atmospheric conditions play a big role, as does the fact that the satellite is tumbling; that means the amount of drag from our air that it feels as it orbits changes constantly, making the exact moment of re-entry too hard to determine this far out. As time goes on, it’ll get more precise.

The map shows several things. At the currently predicted re-entry time, the satellite is just west of Peru. The orange circle around it marks the area where re-entry would be visible. The blue track is the orbital position of the satellite over the Earth before the predicted re-entry, and the yellow after it; both are marked with tick marks at 5-minute intervals. The track moves across the Earth because the Earth is rotating under the satellite! That changes the apparent ground track. The white line marks the day-night boundary, so it’ll be late afternoon locally at the predicted re-entry location.

As of 07:00 Eastern US time, NASA was reporting UARS’s orbit being slightly elliptical at 185 x 195 km (115 x 120 miles). That’s very low, as you’d expect for a satellite about to come down. NASA has provided an RSS feed for updates if you want to stay on top of this, but I’ll note the CORDS site appears to be more current. They also have a nice discussion of how and why satellites come back down.

I’ll update this post as I hear news, but if there’s a significant change in the time or status, I’ll put up a new post.