Remains of retired NASA satellite that spent 38 years in service set to fall on Earth

"The 5,400-pound satellite will reenter the atmosphere at approximately 6:40 pm EST on Sunday, January 8," with no risk to humans.
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ERBS is expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere on January 8, 2023 after 38 years in space.
ERBS is expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere on January 8, 2023 after 38 years in space.

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) defunct satellite is poised to hit the ground on Sunday.  

Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS), launched in 1984, spent nearly 40 years in orbit as part of the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE) mission, according to a press release by the U.S. Space Agency on Friday. 

"The Department of Defense predicted that the 5,400-pound satellite will reenter the atmosphere at approximately 6:40 p.m. EST on Sunday, January 8, with an uncertainty of +/- 17 hours," read the statement. 

"NASA and the Defense Department will continue to monitor the reentry and update the predictions." 

The ERBS collected data on how the Earth absorbs and radiates the energy from the sun, as well as measurements of stratospheric ozone, water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, and aerosols, for 21 years. 

Montreal Protocol Agreement

The Space agency expects most of the satellite to burn up during reentry, but some components may survive. The risk of harm to people on Earth is very low, with approximately a 1 in 9,400 chance. 

The ERBS far exceeded its expected two-year lifespan, operating until 2005 and helping researchers understand the effects of human activities on the Earth's radiation balance.

Remains of retired NASA satellite that spent 38 years in service set to fall on Earth
ERBS was launched on October 5, 1984, by the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-41-G mission and deactivated on October 14, 2005.

The satellite "carried three instruments, two to measure the Earth's radiative energy budget, and one to measure stratospheric constituents, including ozone." read the statement.  

"The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment II (SAGE II) on the ERBS made stratospheric measurements. SAGE II collected important data that confirmed the ozone layer was declining on a global scale."

This data played a huge role in the Montreal Protocol Agreement, which led to a reduction in the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. The ERBS's mission has been continued by projects such as the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES).

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Satellite disposal lifetime limit

To reduce the likelihood of collisions that could produce debris, it has been long suggested that the post-mission disposal lifespan restriction be lowered from 25 years to as short as five years.

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy instructed NASA and several other agencies to review current mitigation guidelines, "specifically the potential benefits and cost in reducing the deorbit timelines," in a National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan that was published in July 2022.

The Federal Communications Commission approved an order in September 2022 requiring commercial satellite operators to deorbit their satellites no later than five years after the conclusion of their missions if they intend to apply for FCC licenses or seek access to the U.S. market after September 2024. 

This rule is applicable to satellites that pass away at 2,000 km or lower altitudes.

Meanwhile, getting back to the NASA satellite that we are about to say goodbye to, the ERBS was launched from the Challenger 38 years ago. 

It received a special send-off when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, launched the satellite into orbit using the shuttle's robot arm.