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NASA Satellite fell, but will we ever know where?

September 24, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
After much anticipation, a dead NASA satellite plunged back to Earth, but where exactly did its pieces make landfall?

Sky-gazers across the country captured video of what they believed was debris falling from space Friday night and early Saturday morning. A mysterious white streak was seen in the sky in Kahulu, Hawaii, and flecks of what looked like shiny dust particles were spotted in the sky in San Antonio, Texas.

Scientists tracking the 6-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) said the 35-foot satellite fell to Earth between 8:23 p.m. and 10:09 p.m. PT. Experts at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo said people in the Los Angeles area were able to see the satellite around 7:40 p.m.

The satellite passed over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as Canada, Africa and Australia. However, experts have not confirmed the precise re-entry time and location. That information may remain a mystery for good.

"It's likely that we'll never know because it fell over an unpopulated area where there was no one there to report for sure," said space debris expert Randy Kendall.

Kendall said according to the U.S. Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center, the last known tracking position of the satellite was somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

"It's likely to have fallen somewhere between there and the southwest of Australia," Kendall said.

The research satellite, which is roughly the size of a small school bus, disintegrated as it made its way back into the Earth's atmosphere.

But 26 pieces were expected to rain down somewhere. Kendall said those pieces may have fallen into the ocean within a 30-by-500 mile debris field. Those pieces were expected to weigh between a few pounds to 300 pounds, he said.

The satellite was launched on the back of the shuttle Discovery and has been orbiting Earth for 20 years. It is the biggest NASA spacecraft to crash back to Earth, uncontrolled, since the post-Apollo 75-ton Skylab space station and the more than10-ton Pegasus 2 satellite, both in 1979.

This may not be the last time something like this happens. The U.S. Air Force is currently checking 20,000 pieces of space junk.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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