The Friday Fillip: The Sky Is Falling

At one point, many years ago now, my parents moved to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a town distinguished by, among other things, being: the home of Mirro Aluminum; the western terminus of the Lake Michigan ferry; roughly equidistant from the Sheboygan Bratwurst Festival and the Green Bay Packers stadium; — and the landing place of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik IV, or a piece thereof, on September 6, 1962. Fortunately, the 20-pound piece of metal hit the middle of 8th Street, which happened to be unoccupied at the time. (See the graphic. Circle marks the spot.) Sensibly, the locals have built an annual festival around the visitation.

Click to enlarge.

One moral of the story, I suppose, is that not everything that rises is consumed by fire when it falls. Which will apparently be the case with the latest piece of space junk to come home to roost. This time, of course, it’s NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), launched some time before 2005, the year it stopped functioning and became a potential liability; UARS, or some of it, is due to crash land some time this afternoon at a site as yet undetermined but outside North America. There is, we’re told, a 1-in-3,200 chance of its injuring or killing a person; and the chances of your being that person (if you’re outside North America) are “one in several trillion.”

All of this is of passing interest — unless you’re the person in the middle of today’s 8th Street. But it’s a harbinger of things to come, as we’ve managed in our inimitable way to litter most near Earth orbits with junk that will come down. And when it does, there may be legal consequences. If that sort of possibility interests you even though it’s Friday, have a look at the latest bulletin from Cameron McKenna, where we learn, for example, that when Cosmos 954, carrying radioactive material, crashed into the Northwest Territories in 1978, Canada claimed $6,000,000 under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects 1972 — and settled for 3 million.

Should you chance to read this before… touch-down, you may want to see the latest NASA updates as to the re-entry path and timing. If so, you’ll see them direct from the NASA site incorporated below and refreshed when you reload the page. [The updates have stopped; you’ll find the latest one below.]

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