Dead NASA satellite crashes to Earth this weekend
A defunct NASA satellite is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere Sunday night (Jan. 8).
The US military predicts that the 5,400 pounds (2,450 kilograms) Soil Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) will crash back to its home planet around 6:40 p.m. EST (2340 GMT) Sunday, plus or minus 17 hours, NASA officials said.
“NASA expects most of the satellite to burn up as it travels through the atmosphere, but some components are expected to survive reentry,” agency officials said. wrote in an update (opens in new tab) on Friday evening (January 6). “The risk of anyone on Earth being harmed is very low — about 1 in 9,400.”
ERBS, part of NASA’s three-satellite Earth Radiation Budget Experiment mission, launched into low Earth orbit aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1984.
ERBS used three scientific instruments to study how our planet absorbs and radiates solar energy. It was designed to run for only two years, but kept ticking until 2005, after which it became quite a nugget space junk. Since then, Drag has been gradually pulling the spacecraft down.
The ERBS death dive comes on the heels of another more dramatic space junk fall.
For example, in 2022, two Chinese Long March 5B rocket cores weighing about 23 tons (21 metric tons) fell uncontrollably back to Earth. These crashes occurred in July and November respectively, each time about a week after the missiles helped launch new modules to China’s Tiangong Space Station.
The first stages of other orbital rockets are sent to controlled destruction just after launch or come down for safe landing and future reuse (in the case of SpaceX blowers). So having the Long March 5B Falls drawn criticism from large segments of the space community.
ERBS is of course a different case; it has been on the air for nearly four decades. Still, the coming spacecraft crash is a reminder that Earth’s orbit is populated by a lot of space debris, posing an increasing threat as more and more satellites lift up.
Mike Wall is the author of “Outside (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).
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