Space Junk Crashing to Earth

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    NEWSLETTERS

    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this image provided by NASA this is the STS-48 onboard photo of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) in the grasp of the RMS (Remote Manipulator System) during deployment, from the shuttle in September 1991. U.S. space officials say they expect a dead satellite to fall to Earth in about a week.

    A dead satellite that had been sending data to NASA’s Goddard Center in Greenbelt will come crashing to Earth, likely by tomorrow.

    Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are ready to act in case that space junk crashes into a populated area.

    The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched in 1993 to study climate conditions, weighs approximately six tons -- about the same as a city bus.

    Researchers say there is a 1-in-3,200 chance that the satellite will land on a person after its fiery descent through the atmosphere.

    NASA cannot project exactly where that satellite is going to fall.  The best estimate places the crash zone somewhere between the latitudes 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south -- an area that encompasses most of the inhabited world.  NASA says it's more likely to land in water, considering that three-quarters of the Earth's surface are covered with it.

    But just in case, FEMA is getting ready.  The agency prepared reaction plans for falling space debris after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

    The UARS satellite entered orbit in 1991 on a three-year mission to study the Earth's upper atmosphere and ozone layer.  The satellite's mission was extended until 2005, when it was finally decomissioned.  NASA controllers burnt off all of the satellite's fuel then, placing it on a slow, decade-long descent back to Earth.

    The satellite is expected to shatter when it hits the atmosphere, which could cause a long debris field, wherever it eventually falls.

    NASA's advice if a piece lands near you?  Don't touch it.

    "If you find something you think may be a piece of UARS, do not touch it. Contact a local law enforcement official for assistance," NASA told NBC News.