Decommissioned Satellite Set to Collide with Earth This Week

The European Space Agency’s defunct satellite, ERS-2, is expected to crash into Earth this week, more than a decade after it completed its mission of observing Earth’s systems and natural phenomena. The ERS-2, comparable in size to a school bus, was the ESA’s first advanced Earth-observing satellite that was launched on April 21, 1995. It functioned for 16 years, studying Earth’s land, oceans, and polar caps, before the ESA decided to decommission it in 2011 to prevent the creation of additional space debris.

As part of the international aerospace community’s guidelines, which include NASA and ESA, dead satellites and rocket parts in low-Earth orbit are required to be disposed of through natural decay or controlled entry post-mission to reduce orbital debris. For the ERS-2, mission control issued a series of commands to the 38-foot-tall satellite, executing 66 maneuvers to lower its altitude and place it in a passive orbit.

Over the past nearly 13 years, the satellite has gradually descended from its orbit about 350 miles above Earth. As it approached its end, the gravitational pull of Earth has been drawing the spacecraft down, where it’s expected to burn up in the atmosphere. The ESA couldn’t predict the exact timing or location of the satellite’s re-entry due to its “natural descent” path, but estimated it would occur in February 2024.

As the ERS-2’s re-entry approaches, the ESA’s Space Debris Office has been issuing updates. Over the past weekend, it released its latest re-entry prediction, stating that the satellite will likely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday morning, with an uncertainty margin of about 18 hours. As the spacecraft gets closer to its end, the uncertainty surrounding the location and timing of its landing and re-entry will decrease.

The ESA has reported that around 50 miles above Earth, the large satellite will break up into smaller pieces. The Space Debris Office of ESA continues to provide timing updates, keeping the public informed about the satellite’s re-entry process. Although the crashing of a satellite might sound alarming, it’s part of the natural life cycle of these space objects, and the debris is likely to burn up upon re-entry, posing minimal risk to people on Earth.

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