‘The responsible way to act’: Europe’s space agency seeks assisted re-entry for retired satellite

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solo25 July 2023Last Update : 2 months ago
‘The responsible way to act’: Europe’s space agency seeks assisted re-entry for retired satellite

The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that out of a total of 10,000 spacecraft currently in space, 2,000 are defunct spacecraft, most of which entered the Earth’s atmosphere in a natural rather than controlled manner.

Europe’s observation satellite Aeolus, launched in August 2018, has exceeded all expectations.

It has well completed its designed life in orbit, with its instrument Aladdin beaming down seven billion pulses of UV light to profile Earth’s air.

Despite its original purpose as a research mission to test innovative technology, Aeolus has been so successful that during its five-year life in orbit, it provided data to major meteorological stations in Europe and contributed to significant improvements in global weather forecasts.

Now, with its fuel nearly spent and the mission over, the European Space Agency (ESA) will bring Aeolus back to Earth in what they’re calling a “first of its kind” assisted re-entry.

Nowadays, satellites burn up completely after the end of their mission or make a controlled re-entry.

But Aeolus was not designed for controlled re-entry as the satellite was planned and built in the late 1990s before the current regulations were in place.

ESA wants to further reduce the risk of harm to humans or infrastructure to a minimum in order to “set an example” amid the growing amount of space debris.

“At ESA, we are convinced that this is the responsible way to act. We want to demonstrate whether it works, or at least that something can be done to reduce the already very small risk of harm to someone or something,” said Isabel Rojo, ESA’s Aeolus Operations Director.

He said that cleaning up the space debris rising above our heads is currently the main focus of ESA.

“Access to space is huge now, it is very open. There are many constellations being launched and many satellites are also there.

“And if we don’t act in this sustainable and responsible way, this is something that can happen very quickly, out of control. So every agency, and every company that has access to space, must act responsibly. And that’s what we’re trying to do, to set an example not just with words, but with actions,” Rojo explained.

Aeolus has operated at an altitude of 360 kilometers at the end of its mission and is currently falling back to Earth at approximately 1 kilometer per day, with its descent speeding up.

Once it reaches an altitude of 280 km on Monday 24 July, ESA controllers will send a series of commands to the satellite to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

From there, controllers will slowly lower the spacecraft in four stages.

“We’re getting that altitude down to 250 kilometers and then even lower to 150 and then 120. So clearly, we’re pushing the limits of what the spacecraft is designed to tolerate,” Rojo said.

The space agency expects most of it to burn up in the atmosphere at a distance of about 80 km.

But some – 20 percent or less, ESA experts say – will survive re-entry and land in the Atlantic Ocean corridor on Friday, July 28, the space agency said.

“We are confident we can succeed with this pioneering effort that will set a new standard for space safety and sustainability now and into the future,” ESA’s Aeolus mission manager, Tommaso Parrinello, said in a statement.

From 2030, every spacecraft developed by ESA will be “debris neutral”, meaning they will clear their precious Earth orbit after the mission is completed.

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