The remnants of a multi-ton German satellite crashed to Earth on Sunday – but scientists still aren’t exactly sure where.
The Associated Press reports that the German Aerospace Center’s best guess is that the now-defunct research satellite likely broke into dozens of smaller pieces before crashing somewhere in Southeast Asia. American military calculations, meanwhile, are slightly more specific, indicating that the satellite fell east of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean or near Myanmar. For now, that’s as specific as anyone seems to be able to get.
Original trajectories showed Chinese cities Chongqing and Chengdu, both with millions of inhabitants, in the flight path of the debris.
Astrophysicists monitoring the situation now say it is unlikely that the satellite fell in a city – mostly because it would have it would have been pretty hard to miss if it had. "If it had come down over a populated area, there probably would be reports by now," American astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the AP.
The German space agency is waiting for reports from partner research sites, but several variables make it difficult to tell where the space junk may have ended up. The satellite moved quickly – orbiting the earth every 90 minutes – and researchers predicted that debris could fall through the atmosphere and into earth in as little as 15 minutes. Material re-entering the atmosphere also sometimes changes direction in the last 90 miles of descent.
The minivan-sized ROSAT satellite was launched in 1990 at Cape Canaveral and used to research black holes and neutron stars with X-ray technology. It was deactivated in 1999 but continued its orbit until scientists said the device would fall late last week, though it was not projected to hit Europe, Africa or Australia.
The German satellite is by no means the first to fall in an unknown location. It took NASA several days to track down the pieces of a dead climate satellite that landed over a 500-mile swath of the Pacific Ocean last month. Still, reducing space junk and falling satellites has been a priority for many international space agencies since new procedures were adopted in 1991. NASA predicts that no more of its large satellites will fall in the next 25 years.