A European satellite is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and crash within the coming week

The European Space Agency has announced that a sizable satellite, which concluded its mission 13 years ago, will descend to Earth in an uncontrolled manner within the next week. However, the agency assures there is an extremely low likelihood of it causing harm to anyone. This satellite, named ERS-2, was launched in 1995 with a mission to observe Earth and has been intentionally brought down gradually to prevent the generation of additional space debris orbiting the planet. Such debris poses a potential threat to active satellites and the International Space Station.

According to the ESA, ERS-2 is projected to re-enter the atmosphere on Monday, with a margin of three days on either side. Any surviving fragments from this fiery re-entry could potentially land anywhere on Earth, but the risk to people on the ground is minimal, as confirmed by ESA experts during a press conference held on Tuesday.

Benjamin Bastida Virgili, an ESA space debris system engineer, stated, “The odds of a piece of satellite falling on someone’s head is estimated at one in a billion.” The majority of the 2.5-ton satellite is expected to burn up upon entry into the atmosphere. Henri Laur of the ESA’s Earth observation mission indicated, “We estimate that the largest fragment of the satellite that could reach the ground is 52 kilograms (115 pounds).”

Initially hailed as Europe’s most advanced Earth observation satellite upon its launch in 1995, the ERS-2 was deactivated by the agency in 2011 in a manner designed to facilitate its gradual descent back into the atmosphere over a span of 13 years. Laur explained that leaving the satellite to orbit indefinitely would have posed a risk of explosion due to lack of energy, potentially resulting in hazardous debris orbiting Earth.

Quentin Verspieren, ESA space safety coordinator, highlighted the agency’s commitment to achieving zero space debris from its missions by 2030. More than 100 organizations, including prominent European aerospace company Airbus, have expressed willingness to sign the agency’s “zero debris” charter. Verspieren expressed hope that US-based competitors such as SpaceX and Amazon would also join this initiative.

On average, around one spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere every month, as reported by the ESA. In 2023, an ESA wind-mapping satellite named Aeolus had a smoother return to Earth, facilitated by an assisted re-entry process, as it had been orbiting at a significantly lower altitude compared to ERS-2.

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