Large NASA satellite falls back to Earth after decades in orbit

A 5,400-pound NASA satellite has fallen safely back to Earth after 38 years in space.

The retired Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Bering Sea between Alaska and eastern Russia at 11:04 p.m. ET on Sunday, January 8, NASA confirmed in a tweet.

While much of the satellite will have burned up as it entered Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, there’s a chance that some parts made it to sea level. However, as of Monday there have been no reports of incidents regarding falling debris.

ERBS was carried to orbit by the Space Shuttle Challenger in October 1984. The spacecraft was part of NASA’s three-satellite Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE) mission and carried with it three instruments — two for taking measurements of Earth’s radiative energy budget, and one for measuring stratospheric constituents, including ozone.

“The energy budget, the balance between the amount of energy from the sun that Earth absorbs or radiates, is an important indicator of climate health, and understanding it can also help reveal weather patterns,” NASA said in a post on its website. “Ozone concentrations in the stratosphere play an important role in protecting life on Earth from damaging ultraviolet radiation.”

When it began its voyage in 1984, ERBS was expected to operate for a mere two years, but it ended up beaming back data for 21 years until its retirement in 2005.

ERBS’s destruction means a little less space junk in low-Earth orbit. Had it been struck by another piece of junk in recent years, it could have broken into numerous parts, creating even more debris in the process.

Space debris, which comes from old satellites and rocket parts, is a hazard for operational satellites, including the International Space Station, which occasionally has to adjust its orbit to dodge incoming junk.

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