Wednesday News Update: 20-Year-Old NASA Satellite Plunged into South Pacific

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That NASA satellite fell the southern Pacific Ocean about as far from large land masses as you can get, U.S. space officials said Tuesday. New U.S. Air Force calculations put the 6-ton satellite's death plunge early Saturday thousands of miles from northwestern North America, where there were reports of sightings, into an area of American Sanoa where remote islands dot the vast watery plain of the South Pacific. Experts believe about two dozen metal pieces from the bus-sized satellite fell over a 500-mile span.

NASA says those new calculations show thesatellite entered Earth's atmosphere generally above American Samoa. But falling debris as it broke apart didn't start hitting the water for another 300 miles to the northeast, southwest of Christmas Island, just after midnight EDT Saturday.

"It's a relatively uninhabited portion of the world, very remote," NASA orbital debris scientist Mark Matney said. "This is certainly a good spot in terms of risk."

On Saturday, scientists said it was possible some pieces could have reached northwestern Canada and claims of sightings in Canada spread on the Internet. But NASA said Tuesday that new calculations show it landed several minutes earlier than they thought, changing the debris field to an entirely different hemisphere.

"It just shows you the difference that 10 or 15 minutes can make," said Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracks man-made space objects. On Saturday, he noted, "We were talking about, `Wow, did it hit Seattle?'"

NASA won't say how it knows the climate research satellite came in earlier, referring questions to the U.S. Air Force space operations center. Air Force spokeswoman Julie Ziegenhorn said better computer model reconstruction after the satellite fell helped pinpoint where the satellite — called the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite returned to Earth — returned to Earth

After UARS was launched in 1991, NASA and other space agencies adopted new procedures to lessen space junk and satellites falling back to Earth. So NASA has no more satellites as large as this one that will fall back to Earth uncontrolled in the next 25 years, according to NASA orbital debris chief scientist Nicholas Johnson.

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