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Updated on February 21, 2024:

The European Space Agency (ESA) reported that its ERS-2 satellite reentered Earth over the North Pacific Ocean between Alaska and Hawaii at around 17:17 UTC (12:17 p.m. ET). No damage to property has been reported.

Satellite’s Final Journey

After nearly three decades in space, the ERS-2 satellite, about the length of a bus, has been gradually losing altitude and will soon crash into Earth. The defunct satellite is expected to break apart as it plummets through the atmosphere.

Other satellites have captured images of ERS-2, which resembles a menacing Star Wars Imperial TIE fighter due to its large solar panels and instruments. Fortunately, most of the satellite’s pieces will burn up during reentry due to intense friction with the atmosphere.

Controlled Reentry

It’s normal and necessary for defunct satellites to reenter Earth. In the case of ERS-2, ESA moved the satellite to a lower altitude in 2011 to avoid collisions with other satellites. Scientists expected it would eventually reenter within 15 years, and that time has come.

Deorbiting satellites at the end of their life helps keep space highways clear of defunct satellites, preventing collisions and mitigating the creation of space debris.

Space Debris Problem

Space debris, or “space junk,” is a growing concern. Satellites today have to maneuver to avoid collisions with other debris. In recent years, threatening debris from weapon tests has forced NASA to move the space station.

The U.S., Russia, and China have all destroyed satellites in space, resulting in clouds of space junk with thousands of traceable fragments.

Atmospheric Drag and Risk of Injury

Once a spacecraft falls below certain altitudes, it gradually falls into the atmosphere and burns up due to atmospheric drag. Ideally, derelict satellites and spacecraft are managed so that atmospheric drag naturally removes them from Earth’s orbit.

Any debris that doesn’t burn off will likely fall into the ocean, which covers over 70% of Earth’s surface. The risk of injury from space debris is extremely low, significantly lower than the risk of being struck by lightning.