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Fiery finish for satellite after years of waiting

By EARLE GALE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-23 09:21
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A satellite, which finished its mission 13 years ago and had been slowly approaching Earth for a feared crash landing ever since, safely burned up in the atmosphere on Wednesday evening, with no debris known to have made it to the surface.

The satellite's fiery finish was a relief to some on the ground who feared it might impact a populated area.

The European Space Agency, or ESA, said its Earth Remote Sensing satellite ERS-2, which was about the size of a rhinoceros, burned up at around 5 pm over the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between the US state of Alaska and its island state of Hawaii. The ESA had earlier predicted it would end its journey near the east coast of central Africa, thousands of kilometers away. But despite the confusion, the ESA insisted "the risks associated with satellite re-entries are very low". It said some small pieces of debris may have peppered remote parts of the Pacific Ocean.

ERS-2 was launched in 1995 and along with its sister satellite, ERS-1, it pioneered many of the technologies we now use widely to monitor the health of the planet, recording floods and measuring land and ocean temperatures, and helping scientists understand global warming.

Mirko Albani, head of the ESA's heritage space program, told The Guardian: "It provided us with new insights on our planet, the chemistry of our atmosphere, the behavior of our oceans, and the effects of humankind's activity on our environment."

'A grandparent'

Ralph Cordey, Airbus Earth's observation business development manager, told the BBC the satellite was like a grandparent of modern planet monitoring systems.

"In terms of technology, you can draw a direct line from ERS all the way through to Europe's Copernicus/Sentinel satellites that monitor the planet today," he said.

ERS-2's mission ended in 2011 and it was subsequently moved into a low orbit, 570 kilometers above the Earth's surface, after having been orbiting 780 kilometers away. Its handlers knew it would then be dragged back to Earth over a period of around 15 years.

The satellite's uncontrolled descent acted as a reminder of the large amount of space debris orbiting the planet and its potential to disrupt future missions, or even pose a danger to people on the ground.

Since the launch of ERS-2, the ESA has adopted the Zero Debris Charter, which calls for redundant vehicles to be left in space for no longer than five years. The agency said it eventually plans to only launch vehicles capable of maneuvering themselves safely back to Earth.

ERS-1 malfunctioned while orbiting more than 700 kilometers from the Earth and will likely take around 100 years to return to the surface.

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