The defunct Solar Max satellite is expected to fall from orbit Friday, and while chunks of the spacecraft may survive the fiery re-entry, the risk of injury or damage from the debris is "very small," NASA officials said Monday.
The 5,000-pound sun observatory, which cost $80 million to build in 1978, had been expected to fall Wednesday, but the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is tracking the satellite, revised its estimate.
"It'll be the first of December, plus or minus a day," said a NORAD spokesman in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Solar Max will break apart somewhere over an area between 28 degrees north and 28 degrees south of the Equator, a path that is mostly over ocean but also covers large parts of Florida, Texas, Mexico, Central and South America and Africa.
"We feel there will be debris, but we don't know how big the pieces will be," said Randee Exler of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "We feel the risk to people is very small."
The satellite could have been lifted into a higher, more stable orbit by a space shuttle, but tight budgets and an equally tight shuttle schedule precluded such a rescue mission.
On Friday, mission controllers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, near Washington, jettisoned the satellite's solar panels, which provided power to recharge its batteries.
"The spacecraft is dead," Exler said.