A car-sized spacecraft crashes into Earth – but there’s a plan to catch it.
Aeolus, the first satellite to observe wind profiles directly from space, is almost out of fuel. Earth’s atmosphere and gravity are now pulling the 1360 kg ship onto our planet with increasing speed.
The original plan was for Aelous to fall back to earth naturally. But the European Space Agency (ESA) has proposed another idea: assisted re-entry – the first of its kind.
Data from Aeolus has been used by meteorological centers to improve weather forecasts. Photo credit: ESA
To reduce the threat of space debris, rockets and satellites are designed to safely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after their mission is complete.
The <3 of EU technology
The latest rumors from the EU tech scene, a story of our wise founder Boris and questionable AI art. It’s in your inbox for free every week. Join Now!
The rapid descent creates so much heat and friction that smaller objects in the sky often disintegrate – but larger bodies can remain intact. To reduce the risk to human life, these units must land safely in uninhabited regions.
According to current regulations spacecraft must either burn up completely or undergo controlled re-entry. But Aeolus was designed before those rules were made.
Photo credit: ESAAeolus is currently falling about 1km per day but will accelerate rapidly. Photo credit: ESA
The aeolus The mission was planned in the late 1990s. when there were no guidelines for re-entry. Back then, Aeolus was designed to crash into a completely random area of Earth.
To meet today’s requirements, ESA has changed the plan. Mission control will now use the last drops of fuel from the satellite to bring the satellite back to Earth.
“This assisted re-entry attempt goes beyond the safety regulations for the mission that was planned and conceived in the late 1990s,” said Tim Flohrer, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, in a blog post.
“When ESA and industry partners realized that it might be possible to further reduce the already minimal risk to life or infrastructure, the wheels were set in motion. If all goes according to plan, Aeolus would comply with current security regulations for missions planned today.”
In 2019, ESA conducted a “collision avoidance maneuver” to protect Aeolus from colliding with a satellite in SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. Photo credit: ESA
Aeolus will initially descend naturally from its operating altitude of 320 km to a lower orbit. When it reaches an altitude of 280 km – a process that may take weeks – ESA will attempt the first re-entry maneuvers.
A sequence of moves then brings that satellite up to a height of 150 km above the earth. The final, crucial orders will take the satellite to an altitude of 80 km, where most of the satellite will burn up in the atmosphere. However, some debris could still reach the surface of our planet.
To avert the very small threat that debris poses to life, ESA is aiming for re-entry into a vast expanse of sea far from land.
If the maneuvers are successful, ESA expects to complete the voyage in late July or early August. However, as this is the very first attempt at assisted re-entry, it is not guaranteed to work. If the plan must be abandoned, Aeolus’ natural descent will continue.
But if the mission is successful, it will set a new standard for satellite reentry and containment of space debris.