Scientists Melted Satellite Parts to Show How They Burned up on Re-entry

ESA scientists were testing the properties of satellite parts re-entering the atmosphere. They hope to use the knowledge to make satellites re-entry procedures safer.
Chris Young
The melting magnetotorquerESA

Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) melted a dense satellite part inside a plasma wind tunnel and released it via video.

The purpose was to help them better understand how satellites melt and burn up during re-entry into the atmosphere. By doing so, they hope to minimize the already small, risk of endangering anyone on the ground.


Testing for safer satellite reentry

The researchers released footage of the satellite part being burnt and vaporized:

The video shows an instrument, called a magnetotorquer, turning into liquid. The research was carried out at the German Space Agency (DLR) in Cologne, Germany. The inside of the plasma wind tunnel was used to simulate the superheated gas (or plasma) that satellites experience during re-entry.

In doing so, the inside of the plasma tunnel reached temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius, turning the instrument into vapor.

Satellite mishaps

This research will allow scientists to understand the way satellites break up as they make their final orbit and finally plunge back to the Earth.

Usually, satellites safely burn in the atmosphere, much like small meteorites and space debris. Occasionally, however, a piece from a satellite survives and can cause damage back on Earth.

The most notorious incident, perhaps, was the re-entry of NASA's Skylab space station.

Parts of the space station fell in 1979 over rural Australia. Some even celebrated this event and it's even possible to buy a piece of Skylab today. However, safety warnings were issued throughout large parts of the world, as NASA was unable to pinpoint the exact location of re-entry.

While there's no need to worry that satellites are likely to come raining down over large cities, this research, as ESA puts it, is essentially "helping fill gaps in knowledge of re-entry."

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