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From NASA satellite to Skylab, 10 examples of space junk falling to Earth

Andrew MachThe Christian Science Monitor

Falling satellite trackers at NASA say it will hit Friday night or Saturday morning and has a small chance of crashing in the US. But the precise track and timing of the falling satellite is still hard to predict. What is known is that events like this have happened before. From NASA rockets to Soviet satellites – including debris that actually hit someone – the history of falling space junk is long. Here are 10 other pieces of space junk that have survived the blazing voyage through Earth's atmosphere.

#10 March 2011: Russian rocket piece lands in Colorado

In March, a hiker in northwestern Colorado came across a crater apparently caused by a large spherical object, still warm to the touch. The hiker called military aerospace officials but was told to contact a local police department instead. Eventually, the hiker reached the NASA office responsible for tracking space debris, and the spherical object turned out to be from a Russian Zenit-3 rocket launched in January. It’s one of only a handful of space debris to be found in the US.

#9 February 2003: Space shuttle Columbia disintegrates over Texas

In early February 2003, space shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The shuttle disintegrated killing all seven crewmembers inside and shedding thousands pieces of debris in Texas and parts of Louisiana. More than 80,000 pieces of debris were recovered and stored for further research.

#8 March 2001: Russian space station nosedives near Fiji

Mir, a Soviet and later Russian space station, was an accomplished microgravity research laboratory and the heaviest space station to orbit Earth when it began its suicidal nosedive in late March 2001. Most of the station, which weighed 286,600 pounds, burned up in the atmosphere, but about 1,500 fragments fell to Earth’s surface upon its deorbit. The fragments were large enough that people in Nadi, Fiji, were able to see falling bits of the debris and retrieve large chunks of the space station from the Pacific Ocean.

#7 April 2000-January 2001: Rocket debris falls to Earth

In late-April 2000, the second stage of a Delta rocket reentered the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean. Three pieces of debris were later found in South Africa.

Less than a year later in mid-January 2001, the third stage of a Delta rocket, known as PAM-D (Payload Assist Module-Delta), reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Middle East. The propellant’s titanium motor casing, which weighed about 154 pounds, landed in Saudi Arabia, but pieces of the titanium pressurant tank and the main propellant tank landed in Texas.

#6 June 2000: Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory splashes into Pacific Ocean

After orbiting Earth for nine years, the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory was intentionally deorbited in June 2000 after one of its gyroscopes failed. In its condition, the observatory was actually still functional, but if another gyroscope had failed, it would have made deorbiting potentially dangerous. NASA therefore decided that a controlled crash was the safest option. As the spacecraft entered the Earth’s atmosphere, solar panels and antennas disconnected from its body and the rest likely melted. More than 13,000 pounds of debris from the observatory was recovered from the Pacific Ocean southeast of Hawaii.

#5 January 1997: Women hit, unharmed by space junk on different continents

In one of the only known cases of a person actually being struck by space junk, a piece of a Delta II rocket hit an Oklahoma woman in January 1997. Lottie Williams was taking a walk and felt something brush her shoulder not long after she saw a streak of light in the night sky. That object turned out to be a small piece of woven metal, weighing no more than an empty soda can, though it came from a rocket launched a year earlier.

Ms. Williams was unhurt, though there were reports that same night of a 580-pound fuel tank that narrowly missed an occupied farmhouse, according to NASA records. The steel tank survived the fall through the atmosphere mostly intact.

That same year, a woman in Turkey was hit in the head by a lightweight piece of charred woven material, though she was not injured. The debris was identified as a fragment of a Delta II booster, which reentered Earth’s atmosphere in late January.

#4 February 1991: Salyut-7 space station shower Argentina

In February 1991, after nine years in orbit, the Russian space station Salyut-7 became one of the largest human-made objects to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. Because of its low orbit, Soviet engineers attempted to guide its descent into the Atlantic Ocean, but their efforts failed. The 88,000-pound station shed metal fragments over cities in Argentina, where unharmed residents observed glowing trails in the sky, according to the Aerospace Corporation.

#3 May 1979: Skylab plummets to Australia

In mid-July 1979, the US’s first space station, Skylab, plummeted through the Earth’s atmosphere and scattered debris over the Indian Ocean and sparsely populated parts of Western Australia, creating an international media event. Ground controllers planned to adjust Skylab’s descent to more than 800 miles southeast of Cape Town, South Africa, although they expected much of it would burn up before it hit. This didn’t happen, however, and NASA said the odds of the station hitting a human upon its reentry were 1 in 152, and the odds of it hitting a city were 1 in 7.

After it’s crash, there were several reports of Australia residents finding debris near their homes, including one teenager who turned a piece of the debris in to the San Francisco Examiner for a $10,000 reward.

#2 January 1978: Soviet satellite crashes in Canada, spreads nuclear waste

In mid-September 1977, Kosmos 954, a Soviet surveillance satellite, crashed into northern Canada after spiraling out of control. The satellite contained a nuclear reactor, which meant the crash scattered nuclear waste over thousands of square miles, according to reports from the Canadian government. Following the crash, the US and Canada sent out overflights to find the debris in an area totaling 48,000 square miles, but only 0.1 percent of the hazardous fuel was ever recovered.

#1 May 1966: Test rocket debris plunks into Brazil

In May 1966, metal debris from the Saturn development test (SA-5) were spotted in the Rio Negro District of Brazil. The vehicle, launched at Cape Canaveral in 1964, reentered Earth’s atmosphere two years later, and the litter included several chunks of lightweight metal and fragile wire pieces.