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[i]On Nov. 10, something apparently hit the school bus-sized orbiter. It could have been one of the many pieces in a growing field of "space junk." It could have been a meteoroid. Space debris often leaves pings and dents in satellites and even the space shuttle, and aging satellites decay over time. But a collision that actually creates new pieces of debris is more rare.
"When I heard this, I was shocked," said Jim Russell, a Hampton University professor who was the project lead for HALOE. "This is very unexpected. That's not normal decay."
Nicholas L. Johnson, chief scientist for NASA's Orbital Debris Program, said it remains unclear what happened to UARS. Four pieces bigger than 4 inches in diameter — roughly the size of a trackable piece of space junk — were sent into orbit, but it is unclear how large those pieces are.
A collision from a meteoroid or another piece of debris is the best hypothesis, Johnson said. The core of the spacecraft appears to still be intact...
Two of the "large" pieces that broke off UARS have apparently already burned up in the atmosphere, Johnson said. The other two pieces will likely do the same.
What remains of the craft's core will continue to orbit for some time — barring another collision.[/i]
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