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NASA finds tiny risk from satellite

New York Times / September 23, 2011

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NEW YORK - The odds that a falling satellite will kill you today are probably zero - but maybe not quite.

A dead hulk of a NASA satellite the size of a bus is skimming the top of the atmosphere, and as air molecules bounce off, its orbit is decaying until gravity will finally pull it down as a fiery meteor.

To be specific, 26 large pieces of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, the heaviest about 330 pounds, are expected to survive and hit the surface. The debris will stretch along a 500-mile path.

At the same time that NASA has been spewing out itinerary updates - by Wednesday evening, North America had been ruled out as a crash pad - the event has turned into a media and pop culture phenomenon. Just about every major news outlet started weighing in on the impending arrival.

NASA has calculated a 1-in-3,200 chance of anyone on Earth being hurt by its satellite’s death plunge.

“The funny thing is that I have a better chance of getting hit by this satellite than winning the lottery,’’ Chanan Carroll, a Baltimore rabbi, wrote on his Facebook page

That was not true, even when there was a possibility of the satellite landing in Baltimore.

The odds of demise-by-satellite for any particular person among the world’s 7 billion people are much lower, on the order of 1-in-trillions, said Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s expert on space debris at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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