NASA said Monday that it expects the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) to re-enter the atmosphere in the last week of September. The device will break apart upon impact, but not all of it will burn up in the atmosphere, NASA said. Furthermore, it is "impossible" to know where the satellite debris will land. Its orbit is inclined 57 degrees to the equator, so any surviving pieces of UARS will land somewhere between 57 degrees north latitude and 57 degrees south latitude, an area that could be up to 500 miles long.
But before you hide out in your basement to avoid falling satellite debris, NASA said the "risk to public safety or property is extremely small."
"Since the beginning of the Space Age in the late-1950s, there have been no confirmed reports of an injury resulting from re-entering space objects," officials said. "Nor is there a record of significant property damage resulting from a satellite re-entry."
If you happen to come across any piece of the UARS, though, NASA urged people not to touch it and call the police for assistance.
NASA said it will post updates about the satellite's whereabouts with increasing frequency as it approaches Earth. The Joint Space Operations Center of U.S. Strategic Command at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base is working around the clock to detect, identify, and track all man-made objects in Earth orbit, including space junk.
A recent NASA-sponsored report from the National Research Council found that the space agency needs a better plan for dealing with this space junk, or orbital debris, before it gets out of hand and damages valuable spacecraft.
According to NASA, most orbital debris is within 1,250 miles of the Earth's surface; the greatest concentrations of debris is found between 500 and 530 miles. Most of this debris circles the Earth at speeds between 4-5 miles per second.
The UARS satellite was launched in 1991 by the Space Shuttle Discovery. At launch, it was 35-feet long, 15 feet in diameter, and weighed in at 13,000 pounds. It was used to measure ozone and chemical compounds found in the ozone layer which affect ozone chemistry and processes, as well as winds and temperatures in the stratosphere and the energy input from the Sun. "Together, these help define the role of the upper atmosphere in climate and climate variability," NASA said. It was officially decommissioned on December 14, 2005.