BERLIN — A defunct satellite is hurtling toward the atmosphere and pieces of it are expected crash to the Earth on Sunday, according to the German Aerospace Center.
Pieces of the ROSAT scientific research satellite are expected to hit sometime Sunday morning European time, or between about 0000 and 0500 GMT (8 p.m. EDT Saturday or 1 a.m. EDT Sunday), the agency said late Saturday.
Most parts of the minivan-sized satellite will burn up during re-entry into the atmosphere but up to 30 fragments weighing 1.87 tons (1.7 metric tons) could crash into Earth at speeds up to 280 mph (450 kph).
The satellite orbits every 90 minutes and it could hit almost anywhere along its path — a vast swath between 53-degrees north and 53-degrees south that comprises much of the planet outside the poles, including parts of North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
"According to the data we currently have, we expect it not to hit over Europe," agency spokesman Andreas Schuetz said. "The satellite is still orbiting and we are observing the data for other parts of the world," he added.
Fluctuations in solar activity and the fact that scientists are no longer able to communicate with the dead satellite render predictions of where and when it will come down yet more difficult.
The 2.69-ton (2.4 metric ton) scientific ROSAT satellite was launched in 1990 and retired in 1999 after being used for research on black holes and neutron stars and performing the first all-sky survey of X-ray sources with an imaging telescope.
The largest single fragment of ROSAT that could hit into the earth is the telescope's heat-resistant mirror.
During its mission, the satellite orbited about 370 miles (600 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, but since its decommissioning it has lost altitude, circling at a distance of only 205 miles (330 kilometers) above ground in June for example, the agency said.
A dead NASA satellite fell into the southern Pacific Ocean last month, causing no damage, despite fears it would hit a populated area and cause damage or kill people.
Experts believe about two dozen metal pieces from the bus-sized satellite fell over a 500-mile (800 kilometer) span of uninhabited portion of the world.
The NASA climate research satellite entered Earth's atmosphere generally above American Samoa. But falling debris as it broke apart did not start hitting the water for another 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the northeast, southwest of Christmas Island.
Earlier, scientists had said it was possible some pieces could have reached northwestern Canada.
The German space agency puts the odds of somebody somewhere on Earth being hurt by its satellite at 1-in-2,000 — a slightly higher level of risk than was calculated for the NASA satellite. But any one individual's odds of being struck are 1-in-14 trillion, given there are 7 billion people on the planet.
The German space agency on ROSAT: http://bit.ly/papMAA
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.