Dead European satellite to burn up into the Earth’s atmosphere on February 21

The dead, Earth-observing European satellite named European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and begin burning on February 21, 2024.

An artist's illustration shows the European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) satellite in Earth orbit
An artist’s illustration shows the European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) satellite in Earth orbit. (Image credit: ESA)

However, it’s impossible to predict exactly when and where the satellite will begin to burn up, as the spacecraft’s reentry is uncontrolled.

Currently, ESA’s Space Debris Office predicts that the reentry of the ERS-2 satellite will take place on February 21 at 15:49 UTC (10:49 a.m. EST).

The second European Remote Sensing satellite, ERS-2, was launched in 1995. During the time of launch, it was the most sophisticated Earth-observing satellite ever developed.

It collected a wealth of valuable data on Earth’s land surfaces, oceans and polar caps and was called upon to monitor natural disasters such as severe flooding or earthquakes in remote parts of the world.

In 2011, after almost 16 years of operations, ESA (European Space Agency) took the decision to bring the mission to an end.

For this reason, a series of deorbiting maneuvers was carried out to lower the satellite’s altitude in order to greatly reduce the risk of collision with other satellites or space debris. As a result of deorbiting maneuvers, the spacecraft’s altitude came down from 785 km to 573 km.

13 years after its retirement, the spacecraft is now reentering the lower layers of Earth’s atmosphere, where it will begin to burn up on February 21, 2024, once its altitude has decayed to roughly 80 km.

The spacecraft’s reentry is uncontrolled because ERS-2 used up the last of its fuel in 2011 in order to minimize the risk of a catastrophic explosion that could have generated a large amount of space debris. Its batteries were depleted, and its communication antenna and onboard electronics were switched off. There is no longer any way to actively control the motion of the satellite from the ground during its descent, ESA wrote in a statement.

The mass of European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) during launch was 2516 kg. Now depleted of fuel, its current mass is estimated to be around 2294 kg.

However, humans have almost no risk of being hit by the piece of spacecraft, as it will break up into fragments around 80 km above Earth’s surface, and the vast majority of these will burn up in the atmosphere. Some fragments could reach Earth’s surface, where they will most likely fall into the ocean.

“The annual risk of an individual human being injured by space debris is under 1 in 100 billion” ESA wrote in a statement. That’s 1.5 million times lower than the risk of being killed in an accident at home.

Visit here for live updates about the atmospheric reentry of European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) satellite. 

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About the Author

Ashim

Ashim Chandra Sarkar founded Space & Telescope in 2022. He holds a M.Sc. in physics and has five years of research experience in optical astronomy. His passion for astronomy inspired him to open this website. He is responsible for the editorial vision of spaceandtelescope.com.

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