Pictures show the European satellite falling to its fiery doom after a first-of-its-kind maneuver that prevented a lot of space junk and debris falling to Earth.
This is indeed what happened with Aeolus, but in a more controlled way than is usual.
ESA took the end of Aeolus as an opportunity to try out a first-of-its-kind reentry maneuver called “assisted reentry,” the European Space Agency said in a statement on Tuesday.
How assisted reentries can make satellite decommissioning safer
The assisted return maneuver involved a series of deorbits, during which the satellite approached Earth, but remained in orbit.
This allows ESA to precisely map where the satellite will eventually enter Earth’s atmosphere, helping to reduce the risk of any debris not completely burning up when landing near any populated area.
Ultimately, ESA calculated that the satellite would charter and burn up over Antarctica, far from any populated areas. About 80% of the satellite burned up and 20% survived upon return, according to Space.com.
“By converting Aeolus’s natural, uncontrolled reentry into an assisted orbit, and selecting the best reentry orbit, the very small risk from any remaining fragments landing near populated areas becomes 150 times less dangerous again,” the ESA said.
Furthermore, the assisted re-entry approach means that “the time that Aeolus was left out of control in orbit was shortened by a few weeks, reducing the risk of collisions with other satellites on this vital space highway,” the ESA said in the statement. .
More space junk, more risks, more action needed
There were more than 6,000 active and operational satellites in orbit as of 2022, compared to just under 1,000 in 2010. This means there is a greater risk of satellites colliding with each other, and space debris flying into populated places on Earth.
The more traffic there is, the more likely debris is to fall, the European Space Agency said. Especially since satellites that have become inoperable continue to operate above without guidance from Earth.
With these factors in mind, the European Space Agency promises to be more careful when it comes to space junk. “Making space missions safer is particularly important for the agency,” ESA said.
Aeolus-assisted reentry was part of that mission to make satellite reentry safer.
“With Aeolus, in a great example of sustainable spaceflight and responsible operations, we stayed with the mission as long as possible, guiding its return as best we could,” Aeolus mission director Tommaso Parinello said in the statement.