ESA's ERS-2 Satellite Safely Reenters Earth After 30 Years

ESA’s ERS-2 Satellite Safely Reenters Earth After 30 Years

Veteran Satellite Safely Reenters After Three Decades of Service

After over 30 years in space, the European Space Agency’s ERS-2 Earth observation satellite has finally retired, safely reentering Earth’s atmosphere on February 21st and landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Launched in 1995, ERS-2 exceeded expectations, working hand-in-hand with sister satellite ERS-1 to revolutionize study of Earth’s land, oceans, ice caps and climate. Now, having depleted its fuel in 2011, atmospheric drag alone has pulled the pioneering satellite back down, with ESA tracking its descent anxiously.

Predicting precisely when and where satellites will reenter is notoriously tricky business, dependent on the complex interplay between the atmosphere, space weather, and the satellite’s orientation. In ERS-2’s case, the uncertainty window was still +/- 1.76 hours in the final predictions on February 21st.

Thankfully, after updates from ground sensors, ESA’s Space Debris Office confirmed reentry occurred at 17:17 UTC, only about an hour off predictions. Even better, ERS-2 landed safely in the North Pacific Ocean with no reported damage, despite the risk debris poses for populated areas.

In the final 50 miles of descent, ESA expects ERS-2 broke into fragments, the majority burning up harmlessly. Any remaining pieces likely splashed down in the Pacific, containing no hazardous materials.

The controlled deorbiting performed in 2011 depleted extra fuel specifically to reduce risks from an uncontrolled breakup in orbit, which could have imperiled active satellites. Still, as with most reentries, it wasn’t possible to steer ERS-2 precisely once the atmosphere took over.

Throughout the satellite’s return, ESA provided extensive details on the descent and rationale behind the deorbiting. Beyond debris mitigation, the event highlighted challenges in reentry modeling.

ERS-2’s decades of outstanding service advanced everything from disaster response to climate science. As Director Simonetta Cheli summed up, “They have provided us with new insights on our planet, the chemistry of our atmosphere…creating new opportunities for research and applications.”