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Solar Activity Spells Doom for NASA Satellite

Thanks to the sun, we now have a date when NASA's 6-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will meet its demise.

On Friday, NASA has said that their doomed 6-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will most likely crash to Earth on, or around, Sept. 23.

Earlier, there was some ambiguity as to when the satellite may reenter, but since the recent uptick in solar activity, the UARS demise has been sped up somewhat.

SCIENCE: How Do Satellites Talk to Earth?

Unfortunately, we have absolutely no idea as to where the thing is going to crash. Only that it's not going to hit Antarctica. And I assume that if you live on the North Pole, you'll be safe. Cue the most useless, yet entertaining, BBC graphic of all time:

Yep, no one is safe.

Sarcasm to one side, there is a strong likelihood that some parts of the spacecraft will crash to Earth, potentially over populated areas. Scientists estimate that although most of the craft will burn up, 26 separate chunks of space junk could survive the fall, scattering over a 250-300 mile (400-500 kilometer) long impact zone.

And as the graphic illustrates, for now, it is just as likely to take a dive into the Pacific Ocean as it is to appear in your back yard.

So why all the uncertainty? When you have an object zooming around the planet at 5 miles (8 kilometers) per second through a dynamic yet increasingly dense upper atmosphere, it is very hard to pinpoint how the 6-ton piece of satellite junk will act. In fact, it will likely be impossible to give an idea of reentry location until two hours before it happens.

But now, thanks to the sun, at least NASA can put some kind of constraint on when the satellite will reenter.

ANALYSIS: The Sun Is Sexy: Space Weather Prediction 2.0

As reported by everyone's favorite space chicken, Camilla Corona SDO - NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory mascot - solar activity has a huge impact on the upper atmosphere, ultimately interfering with the orbits of satellites.

"As solar activity increases, extreme ultraviolet radiation (also called EUV) heats Earth's gaseous envelope, causing it to ‘swell' and reach farther into space than normal," says Camilla in her NASA outreach blog.* "The puffed-up atmosphere causes the slow-down of orbiting spacecrafts because of this additional ‘drag.'"

ANALYSIS: How Does the Sun Affect the Earth?

This is exactly what's happening to UARS; it is encountering the tenuous atmosphere sooner than expected due to an increase in solar activity - hence the Sept. 23 deadline (plus or minus a day).

The chances of the satellite causing a public menace is 1-in-3,200. This, in itself, is very remote, but expect to see more scary graphics like the BBC's example for the next week (just don't pay much attention to them).

*Yes, I really did quote a rubber chicken.