News came out yesterday that Russia and her space-station partners plan to crash the thing into the ocean when its life span ends in 2020.
It's too expensive to dismantle, and would be too huge and dangerous a piece of space junk to leave up there in orbit.
Man-made orbiters have crashed to earth before, of course, with mixed results. Most of the time they all but toally burn up in re-entry, but not always. Five famous examples:
5. Skylab The first American space station was Skylab, which was launched in 1973. It was abandoned after four missions in 1974. NASA thought about keeping it up there but decided not to.
They thought it would orbit for another five or six years, but sunspot activity quickened the ship's gradually descending orbit, and an earth panic that was halfway not serious and halfway serious ensued.
Newspapers offered rewards for the first person to find pieces of Skylab, and scientists tried to assure people that most of the earth is water, and much of the land is empty, so chances of being hit are pretty infinitesimal. NASA fired rockets they thought would direct it into the ocean, but the ship crashed outside of Perth, Austrailia in July 1979. Pieces of it were displayed a few days later at the Miss Universe pageant in Perth.
4. The $424 million Glory hole in the ocean The Glory weather satellite, designed to research climate change, took off from Vandenberg Air base in California on March 4 of this year.
It failed to reach altitude. Here's a comment no launch director wants to make:
"All indications are that the satellite and rocket is in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere," NASA Launch Director Omar Baez said in a morning press conference.
At least there were no nearby Miss Universe pageants.
3. Kosmos 954 In early 1978, the USSR had some bad news for its North American friends: A satellite with an onboard nuclear reactor had malfunctioned and possibly, maybe had a chance to crash in Canada or the U.S.
When the spy satellite did come down the Soviets announced it had entirely burned up on re-entry, no need to look for any pieces of it or anything, forget we even told you about it.
Canada and the U.S. launched a search operation, however, and found debris stretching across a nearly 400-mile arc of Canada from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake. Most of the pieces found were radioactive.
2. Mir The good news about the Russkies handling a controlled crash of a space station is that they have done it successfully before.
Mir was an almost uninhabitable death trap, long past its predicted shelf life, by the time it came down in March 2001.
Russian scientists choreographed a series of controlled burns, and the chucks of the craft that survived re-entry plunged into the southern Pacific Ocean, just as predicted.
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In 2008, it was the U.S. that had bad space-orbit news to deliver: A spy satellite with plenty of highly toxic and unstable hydrazine was headed back to earth.
President George W. Bush approved a lan to shoot the thing down, and it actually worked. The USS Lake Erie was stationed off Hawaii and fired a missile at USA-193, as the satellite was called, and scored a hit. The hydrazine tank was believed to have been ruptured by the strike, and the deadly liquid dissipated before reaching earth. We think.