What is the size of a Greyhound bus, weighs six and a half tons and is guaranteed a ground-shaking re-entry? If you guessed Kirstie Alley, you’re wrong – it’s actually NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), which is currently hurtling through space at 17,000 mph on a collision course with… somewhere. NASA experts predict the spent climate probe will plunge through the atmosphere at some point today: While the majority of UARS will disintegrate into stratospheric ash, there’s a 1-in-3,200 chance of satellite debris hitting someone on the ground. Slim odds, sure, but NASA can only pinpoint the debris zone to within 6,000 miles, and they won’t even be able to do that until two hours before re-entry.
Nonetheless, don’t fret. There are over 22,000 pieces of man-launched trash orbiting the Earth, and this type of “whoops, better duck, son” NASA phenomena has occurred over a dozen times before. Of all those times, only one person has gotten clobbered in the head by space junk, and all the others were close call misses at best. Here, see for yourself. But strap on your old varsity helmet just in case!
Soviet Naval Satellite Cosmos 954
The USSR navy commissioned this satellite secretly, but soon had to let the cat out of the bag as the probe spiraled out of control and started falling back to Earth on Jan 24, 1978. The hook was, Cosmos’ two antennae held small nuclear reactors, which, for obvious reasons, nobody particularly wanted to land on their town. Naturally, panic spread on the ground, but luckily the debris spread over the uninhabited Canadian Arctic. Thanks a lot, comrades!
U.S. Delta II Rocket Fragment
A woman in Turley, Oklahoma, actually had a piece of space junk land on her head in Jan 22, 1997. Lucky for her, it was just a lightweight piece of charred woven material from one of the rocket’s boosters, so she wasn’t seriously injured. Considering that some of the bigger parts of debris included stuff like the steel propellant tank or the titanium pressure sphere, she got really, really lucky. Well, as lucky as you can be when you’re the only person ever to get hit in the head by falling space junk.
Russian Space Station Mir
After 15 years of orbital service, the 143-ton Mir began a suicidal nosedive on March 23, 2001, over the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, the majority of the colossal station burned up in the atmosphere, but pieces came so close to people on the ground that vacationers in Nadi, Fiji, were able to photograph flaming debris. Native Fijians still believe the event prophesied the return of Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka to wrestling.
U.S. Space Station Skylab
Truly the mother of all falling space junk hype and hysteria. People peered towards the sky all around the world on July 11, 1979, anticipating Skylab’s re-entry. A couple of California newspapers even offered chunks of cash for anyone who found a piece of the station, or was hit by one. When it was all said and done, though, Skylab broke apart and spread debris over the Indian Ocean and a lightly populated area of Australia. The Down-Under government fined the U.S. a whopping $400 – for littering.
Delta II Strikes Again!
Exactly four years after noggin-knocking the woman in Oklahoma, more Delta II debris fell back to Earth on Jan 12, 2001. This time it was pieces of the rocket’s third stage payload module. The biggest piece – a titanium motor casing that weighed 154 pounds – pummeled a desert area in Saudi Arabia, while pressure and propellant tanks slammed down in the Texas towns of Sequin and Georgetown. “The stars at night, are big and bright… ((clap, clap, clap, clap)) …deep in the heart of Texas!”