Space Station Trash Burns Up Over South Pacific

Space Station Trash Plunging to Earth
NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, an Expedition 15 flight engineer, tosses a hefty unneeded ammonia tank the size of a refrigerator overboard from the International Space Station (ISS) during a July 23, 2007 spacewalk. The tank is expected to reenter Earth's atmosphere on Nov. 2, 2008. (Image credit:

A piece ofspace trash the size of a refrigerator plunged into the Earth?s atmosphere lateSunday to burn up over the southern Pacific Ocean, more than a year after anastronaut tossed it off the International Space Station, NASA officials saidtoday.

Spacestation program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters the orbitaltrash, a 1,400-pound (635-kg) tankof toxic ammonia coolant, slammed into the Earth?s atmosphere at analtitude of about 50 miles (80 km) as it flew above the ocean just south of Tasmania.

?Whatdebris may have been still together after re-entry, it fell into the oceanbetween Australia and New Zealand,? Suffredini said during a NASA briefing. ?Iknow a lot of folks were wondering what the end result of that was.?

NASAexpected up to 15 pieces of the tank to survive the fiery plunge, ranging insize from about 1.4 ounces (40 grams) to nearly 40 pounds (17.5 kg). The largestpieces, if they survived, may have hit the ocean at speeds of up to 100 mph(164 kph).

The U.S.Space Surveillance Network kept a close watch on the ammonia tank for NASA aspart of its ongoing effort to monitor the thousands of piecesof orbital debris circling Earth.

Known as anEarly Ammonia Servicer (EAS), the coolant tank was the largest piece of trashever disposed of by hand from the space station. NASA astronaut ClaytonAnderson junked the tank while wearing a spacesuit and standing at the tip ofthe station?s Canadian-built robotic arm during a July 23, 2007 spacewalk.

?We?rereally fortunate to be able to track objects to a fairly small size,?Suffredini told before the ammonia tank re-entered, addingthat the ammonia tank was rather large and easy to track.

NASA takesgreat care to ensure that any trashtossed overboard from the space station does not endanger other spacecraftor people on Earth, he added.

Theobsolete tank had served as a spare reservoir of ammonia coolant for the spacestation in case of leaks since 2001, but was no longer required afterastronauts activated the outpost?s main cooling system in early 2007. Butbecause the tank was so old, engineers were worried its structural integritywouldn?t hold during a return to Earth aboard a NASA shuttle.

Insteadthey asked Anderson to toss it during a spacewalk dedicated to discarding oldequipment. He also jettisoned a 212-pound (96-kilogram) video camera stand, butthat item burned up in Earth?s atmosphere earlier this year.

?I justlike it when they?ve re-entered and it?s not a problem,? Suffredini said."One of the big concerns for any orbiting pressurized spacecraft isorbital debris.?

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.