A huge European satellite will fall back to Earth uncontrollably

A huge European satellite will fall back to Earth uncontrollably


Tin Can Durbet

A massive, malfunctioning satellite is set to collide with Earth’s atmosphere and plummet toward Earth in just weeks.

Launched into orbit in 1995, ESA’s European Remote Sensing Satellite 2 (ERS-2) has been out of service for more than a decade. It has since exhausted the last of its fuel reserves and is scheduled to re-enter the atmosphere “around mid-February,” according to an ESA statement.

Even without fuel, the massive Earth Observatory still weighs about 5,000 pounds, and is a giant piece of space debris that could wreak technical devastation if it collided with a populated area.

Fortunately, as ESA is quick to point out in an FAQ about reentry specifically, “the annual risk of human injury from space debris is less than 1 in 100 billion.”

In other words, you are more likely to be struck by lightning.

Crashing down

like Space.com website He points out that much larger objects have fallen out of orbit uncontrollably, including the core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which weighed a whopping 23 tons when it broke apart again a week after its launch in 2022.

Since then, NASA officials have criticized China for its reckless habit of letting huge rocket parts fall away unaided.

The risks are real, especially when it comes to recently launched missile boosters. Just last month, videos circulated on social media showing what appeared to be a pair of rocket boosters from China’s Long March 3B missile falling uncontrollably toward a populated area, creating huge fireballs.

As for where the European Space Agency’s massive satellite will land, it is impossible to determine at this stage.

“The satellite is under frequent monitoring, and we are tracking its orbital altitude as it decays,” the ESA FAQ read. “However, since reentry is normal, it is impossible to predict exactly when and where a satellite will start burning up.”

Besides becoming a massive piece of space junk, the ERS-2 satellite has “collected a significant amount of data about Earth’s diminishing polar ice, changing land surfaces, rising sea levels, warming oceans, and atmospheric chemistry,” according to the agency. It also provided assistance during natural disasters.

While a largely uncontrolled landing seems like a rash decision, an eventual landing is still technically a desirable outcome rather than a threat to later space explorers.

Our planet’s orbit is already littered with space junk, and the problem is bound to get worse as more rockets are launched (and satellites are taken out of service).

More about re-entry: NASA is terrified that the space station will spin out of control and collide with people

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