Toxic tank set to crash to Earth

A toxic tank twice the size of a domestic fridge is set to crash to Earth tomorrow (Monday) — and NASA says it could land on any continent except Antarctica (see update below).

the Early Ammonia ServicerThe giant tank, weighing more than half a ton, and full of ammonia, was thrown overboard from the International Space Station more than a year ago.

It was jettisoned by spacewalking astronaut Clayton Anderson on July 23, 2007, because NASA considered it too dangerous to bring home on the shuttle.

Normally the space agency is opposed to turning space into a rubbish dump but the ammonia, which had been used to cool electronics on the orbiting outpost, was considered a risk to the crew.

The machine, called the Early Ammonia Servicer, or EAS for short, has been circling the Earth since it was dumped in a steadily decaying orbit.

Now predictions how it will re-enter sometime today, creating a fireball as brilliant as the full moon as it disintegrates. However as many as 15 chunks are expected to survive and crash into the ground at 100mph.

Unfortunately the space agency cannot be precise about just when the EAS will re-enter in a window 30 hours long, meaning it could come down almost anywhere. For latest details check out Spaceweather.com.

In September, Europe’s new spacecraft, the Jules Verne, burned up in a fireball but that was a controlled re-entry targeted on an unpopulated region of the Pacific Ocean. A previous toxic threat was the spy satellite USA-193 which the US military shot down over the Pacific earlier this year.

A spokesman said: “NASA expects up to 15 pieces of the tank to survive the searing hot temperatures of re-entry, ranging in size from about 1.4 ounces to nearly 40 lbs. The largest pieces could slam into the Earth’s surface at about 100mph.”

He added: “If anybody found a piece of anything on the ground on Monday, I would hope they wouldn’t get too close to it.” The EAS, which had been installed in 2001, was rendered obsolete by upgrades aboard the space station and was jettisoned to make room for new hardware.

Update: The tank appears to have come down early, Spaceweather.com is reporting. Observers who had been monitoring it looking like a moderately bright star, said they could find no trace of it today.

The final observation reported of it was made by Thomas Dorman, from Horizon City, Texas, as it crossed his sky on Saturday night. It failed to appear on later predicted flyovers. He commented: “I think it is safe to assume EAS has reentered.”

US Space Command later said they believed the EAS reentered Earth’s atmosphere as a fireball yesterday at 04.51 GMT over the Indian Ocean, south of Tasmania.

Photo: The EAS floats away from the space station after being jettisoned by Clayton Anderson (NASA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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