See the eerie final images from the doomed wind-monitoring satellite
Satellites don’t live forever. And when their mission is over, some of them remain in orbit as space junk. The lucky ones return to Earth and are destroyed in the atmosphere. This was the fate of the European Space Agency’s Aeolus satellite after it completed a mission to analyze our planet’s winds. Researchers captured rare scenes of the satellite shortly before its fiery demise.
Aeolus launched in 2018 with an instrument on board that measures Earth’s winds on a global scale. “These observations have improved weather forecasts and climate models,” the European Space Agency said. The satellite spent nearly five years in orbit and returned to Earth on July 28. On Tuesday, the European Space Agency released a ghostly series of images showing Aeolus as it began to plummet through the atmosphere.
The images come from a radar antenna at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. “The color in these final images represents the intensity of the radar echo, not the temperature,” the European Space Agency said. The institute’s radar system is designed to measure orbits and take pictures of objects such as satellites and space debris. Technically, Aeolus was considered space debris for a few hours before it burned up.
Aeolus was designed in the 1990s before much attention was paid to the problem of space junk. Defunct space missions ranging from dead satellites to spent rocket bodies are clogging up Earth’s orbit. Space junk can pose risks to operational missions, whether robotic or manned. For example, the International Space Station has to avoid space junk sometimes.
The European Space Agency is now designing satellites with debris mitigation in mind. But Aeolus predates these efforts, so the space agency has come up with a way to help him make his safe return to the atmosphere. The goal was to make sure that any pieces that didn’t burn would get to a safe place where they wouldn’t hurt people. The Aeolus team performed a complex set of maneuvers to lower the satellite’s orbit.
The radar antenna was able to track the satellite for about four minutes. The data helped the European Space Agency determine the exact reentry path and time. The satellite burned safely over an uninhabited area of Antarctica about two hours later. If any debris fell to the ground, it would not affect human lives or dwellings.
“With Aeolus, in a great example of sustainable spaceflight and responsible operations, we stayed with the mission for as long as possible, guiding its return as far as it was possible to do, and these images are our final farewells to the mission we’ve made,” mission director Tommaso Parinello said in a statement. They are all lost, but their legacy lives on.”
The degraded satellite views are a fascinating glimpse into the final moments of a mission that refused to become part of Earth’s space junk problem.