European satellite set for fiery tumble into Earth's atmosphere

By Dhananjay Khadilkar - RFI
Europe European satellite set for fiery tumble into Earth's atmosphere
FEB 21, 2024 LISTEN

The European Space Agency's (ESA) European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) satellite will take an uncontrolled, fiery plunge into the atmosphere sometime on Wednesday.

Its planned re-entry is part of ESA's goal of mitigating the problem of space debris.

This natural re-entry of ERS-2, launched in 1995, follows on from its 66 de-orbiting manoeuvres carried out by ESA in 2011. 

ESA ended the once cutting-edge satellite's operations in 2011.

Quentin Verspieren, ESA senior expert on space debris, told RFI that ERS-2 was designed prior to specific standards for preventing debris and, therefore, didn't have to comply with current practices. 

Verspieren also explained that at the end of its mission, ESA decided to make an example and introduce modern standards for removing the historic satellite.  

The result is this planned re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere where most of it will burn up on its descent– leaving little trace in outer space.

He added that ERS-2's re-entry is different from the Aeolus satellite, which re-entered the Earth's atmosphere last year. 

While ERS-2 will enter the atmosphere fully uncontrolled, Aeolus was able to undergo a manoeuvred re-entry due to its more advanced design. 

Space debris

Formally known as orbital debris, space debris includes pieces of inactive satellites and rockets that carry them into space, as well as debris from missiles and detritus left behind by astronauts.

Space debris can be as large as a school bus, like the inactive Envisat satellite launched in 2002, or as small as paint chips.

According to Nasa, there were more than 25,000 objects larger than 10cm of debris currently orbitting Earth. Meanwhile, the estimated population of particles between under 10cm in diameter is around 500,000.

As of January 2022, the amount of material orbiting the Earth exceeded 9,000 metric tons.