An old fridge thrown off the International Space Station last year is set to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere shortly, according to reports, delivering a volley of 100mph space frag debris to an as-yet unknown impact site.
The refrigeration unit in question is the Early Ammonia System (EAS), a 1400lb tank intended to furnish backup supplies of the unpleasant-smelling coolant to the space station in the early stages of its construction. As the ISS neared completion it became surplus to requirements.
The disused stink-tank might more normally have been shipped back to Earth aboard a space shuttle, but in the end no room was found. Astronaut Clay Anderson dealt with the problem briskly in July last year, flinging the hefty three-quarter-ton unit off the end of the space station's robot arm along with an old camera mounting also deemed no longer necessary.
In the year-plus since, the orbital pong-bomb has gradually slowed down due to the friction exerted by the extreme upper atmosphere, thus descending and becoming subject to more friction and so on. In effect, the EAS has hung above our heads like an evil-smelling Sword of Damocles, which might suddenly plunge down to release its payload of eyewatering space niff at any time. The tipping point at which the slowing and dropping suddenly accelerates and the descent begins in earnest is expected imminently; surviving pieces of the EAS should reach Earth today.
"This has got a very low likelihood that anybody will be impacted by it," said NASA's Mike Suffredini, quoted by MSNBC. "But still, it is a large object and pieces will enter and we just need to be cautious."
NASA exploding-space-fridge experts have worked out that the largest pieces of tank which could survive might be as big as 15lb and travelling at 100mph. The fridge-frag shower will most likely fall out at sea, but might conceivably hit a populated area if things turn out unfortunately.
The greatest danger associated with the plunging pong-barrel would be impact damage from the pieces, rather than its ammonia contents - which would be sure to have vapourised by then. Nonetheless, NASA's Suffredini added:
"If anybody found a piece of anything on the ground Monday morning, I would hope they wouldn't get too close to it."
There were never any plans to engage the innocuous coolant assembly with a volley of missile-defence interceptors fired from US Navy cruisers, as happened the last time an American tankful of stinks came down from orbit out of control. ®