Dramatic images show a huge satellite falling towards Earth

Illustration of ESA’s ERS-2 satellite. ONE

The European Space Agency (ESA) has shared an extraordinary image showing one of its satellites in what it describes as a “fall descent”.

ESA’s European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) satellite is expected to burn up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday.

The image (below) was taken about three weeks ago by Australian commercial imaging company HEO when the satellite was at an altitude of about 150 miles (300 kilometers).

ERS-2 spotted! 📸🛰️

ESA’s satellite is undergoing a descent that will cause reentry into the atmosphere and break up this week.

This ERS-2 image was taken by @heospace For @spacegovuk using cameras on other satellites.#ERS2 is back in pic.twitter.com/GTuubP6apJ

— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) February 19, 2024

ERS-2 has dropped to an altitude of about 125 miles (200 km) and is falling at more than 6.2 miles (10 km) per day, at a rapidly increasing rate.

ESA says that when the 5,000-pound satellite descends to a distance of about 50 miles (80 km), it will begin to break into pieces, most of which will burn up before reaching the ground. The space agency added that the risk to people and property is very low, and said that “on average, an object of similar mass re-enters Earth’s atmosphere every week or two.”

The re-entry of the satellite was described by the ESA as “natural” because the agency no longer had control over the satellite. “The only force causing ERS-2’s orbital decay is atmospheric drag, which is influenced by unpredictable solar activity,” the agency said.

On Monday, ESA said it expects the satellite to meet a fiery end on Wednesday at 15:41 UTC (10:41 ET), although that could be up to 11 hours either side of that time. Reentry locations are also difficult to predict at this time, although expectations are forthcoming shared on the ESA website will become more accurate.

Diagram showing the history of ESA's ERS-2 satellite.
ONE

ERS-2 was launched from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in 1995, and orbited the Earth at an average altitude of 488 miles (785 km). This mission collects valuable data about the Earth’s surface, oceans and polar cover, while capturing images of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

The mission ended in 2011 when ESA decided to deorbit the satellite to reduce the chance of it colliding with other satellites or space debris, thereby causing space debris to become more dangerous.

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