Where Falling Satellite Lands Is Anyone's Guess Sometime this week, a school bus-sized satellite will fall to Earth after two decades in orbit. Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere, but some pieces — and one possibly as large as 300 pounds — are expected to hit the ground. But there's little risk that they'll hit a person.
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Where Falling Satellite Lands Is Anyone's Guess

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Where Falling Satellite Lands Is Anyone's Guess

Where Falling Satellite Lands Is Anyone's Guess

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, in New York.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Later this week, a retired NASA satellite that's the size of a school bus will finally fall back towards Earth. Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere. But about two dozen pieces are expected to hit our planet somewhere. The biggest piece will weigh about 300 pounds. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on your risk of being hit by this falling space junk.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lottie Williams lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Back in 1997, she was walking through a park around 4:00 a.m. when she saw what looked like a shooting star.

LOTTIE WILLIAMS: It was just a big ball of fire, shooting across the sky at just a fast speed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A little while later, she felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, there was no one there, but something fell to the ground. It was a small piece of burned mesh. An analysis later showed it's most likely part of a returning Delta II rocket - that fireball in the sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: I mean, that was one of the weirdest things that ever happened to me.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And I think you're the only one like in the world that that's ever happened to.

WILLIAMS: Yes. Mm-hmm. That's true.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I told her about the huge NASA satellite expected to fall to Earth on Friday, plus or minus a day.

WILLIAMS: It's not going to come across Oklahoma again, is it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They don't know where it's going to be.

WILLIAMS: Oh, they don't know?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: No.

WILLIAMS: Goodness. Mm.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The atmosphere's density constantly changes. You have to factor in storms, winds, the object's size and shape.

BRIAN WEEDEN: And all of that makes it a very complex issue and one that's very, very hard to predict accurately.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He compares it to dropping a coin in a fish tank and trying to guess where it will land. Still, Weeden is not worried.

WEEDEN: The Earth is 70 percent water, and within the portions of it that are only land, there's a lot of land.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA has calculated the odds that someone might get hit this time around. Mark Matney is an orbital debris scientist at Johnson Space Center in Houston. He says the risk is one in 3,200.

MARK MATNEY: That 1 in 3,200 is the probability that someone, somewhere on the Earth will be hit by a piece of debris of sufficient size to cause injury.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Matney says your own personal risk of being hit by a piece of this satellite is far, far lower.

MATNEY: Something like one in trillions for any one person.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Matney says that space junk falls back to Earth all the time. Usually, no one notices. Large objects the size of this satellite return about once a year. This one is getting advance publicity because it's the biggest NASA satellite to make an uncontrolled re-entry in about three decades.

MATNEY: If you're lucky enough to be near the re-entry at nighttime, you should see a spectacular show.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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