NASA’s defunct satellite is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday evening (Jan. 8).
The US military predicts that the 5,400-pound (2,450-kilogram) Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) will crash into its home planet Sun around 6:40 pm EST (2340 GMT), more or less 17 hours later, NASA officials said.
“NASA expects most of the satellite to burn up as it travels through the atmosphere, but some parts are expected to survive reentry,” agency officials wrote in the update. (Opens in a new tab) on Friday evening (Jan. 6). “The risk of damage to someone coming to Earth is very low – about 1 in 9,400.”
Related: Acipenser Syndrome and the space debris problem
ERBS, part of NASA’s three-satellite Earth Radiation Budget Experiment mission, was launched to low-Earth orbit by the space shuttle Challenger in 1984.
ERBS uses three scientific instruments to study how our planet absorbs and disperses solar energy. It was designed to operate for only two years but ticked on until 2005, after which it became a hefty hunk of space junk. The drag of space is slowly dragging down until time.
The ERBS death dive will come in the footsteps of another, more dramatic space-junk fall.
In 2022, for example, two nearly 23-ton (21 metric tons) Chinese Long March 5B nuclear rockets returned to Earth uncontrollably. These crashes occurred in July and November, respectively, each about a week after rockets helped launch new modules to China’s Tiangong space station.
The first stages of other orbital rockets are directed to the continent of destruction, soon after liftoff or descent to a safe harbor and future reuse (in the case of SpaceX boosters). So the Long March 5B incident drew criticism from a wide swath of the space community.
ERBS is of course another cause; It has been sublime for nearly four decades. However, the arrival of the ship’s crash is a reminder that Earth’s orbit is littered with many space junks, which increasingly pose a threat to satellites.
Mike Wall is the author of “There you go (Opens in a new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (Opens in a new tab) or * Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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