It has been floating above our planet for almost 30 years.
But a satellite launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) will finally crash into Earth again this month.
ERS-2, which took off from French Guiana in 1995, weighs just over 5,000 pounds, about the same as an adult rhino.
ESA experts say it will re-enter the planet’s atmosphere “mid-February,” although exactly when or where it will land is still unknown.
The agency expects that any piece of the machine “will likely fall into the ocean” and stresses that the risk of being damaged by space debris is less than 1 in 100 billion.
ERS-2 satellite before launch. ERS-2 was launched in 1995, following its sister, the first European remote sensing satellite ERS-1, which was launched in 1991. The two satellites were designed as identical twins with one important difference: ERS-2 included an additional instrument to monitor ozone levels in the atmosphere
“The European Remote Sensing Satellite 2 (ERS-2) will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and begin burning in mid-February 2024,” the agency said in a statement.
«It is impossible to predict exactly when and where the satellite will start to burn.
“The window during which re-entry is possible will continue to narrow until the time of re-entry.”
ESA said it is monitoring the satellite “very closely” alongside international partners and will provide regular updates in the days leading up to its re-entry.
The ERS-2 satellite was launched in April 1995 from ESA’s Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana, to study the Earth’s land surfaces, oceans and polar caps.
After 15 years, the space probe was still operational when ESA declared the mission complete in 2011.
After deorbitation maneuvers exhausted the satellite’s remaining fuel, ground control experts began reducing its altitude from approximately 487 miles (785 km) to 356 miles (573 km).
Experts wanted to minimize the risk of collision with other satellites or contributing to the cloud of “space junk” currently surrounding our planet.
Since then, ERS-2 has been in a period of “orbital decay,” meaning it has been getting closer and closer to Earth as it orbits the planet.
The ERS-2 satellite was launched in April 1995 from ESA’s Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana (pictured)
ERS-2 will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up once its altitude has decreased to about 50 miles (80 km), about one-fifth the distance of the International Space Station.
At this altitude, it will break up into fragments, the vast majority of which will burn up in the atmosphere.
However, some fragments could reach the Earth’s surface, where they “will most likely fall into the ocean,” according to ESA.
“None of these fragments will contain toxic or radioactive substances,” the agency said.
Although it cannot guarantee that there is no chance of ERS-2 hitting someone, ESA did note that the annual risk of a human being, even slightly injured, being caused by space debris is less than one in 100 billion. .
This is approximately 1.5 million times lower than the risk of dying in a domestic accident and 65,000 times lower than the risk of being struck by lightning.
Worryingly, ESA describes the event as a “natural” reentry because ground staff have no way of monitoring it during its descent.
“ERS-2 exhausted the last of its fuel in 2011 to minimize the risk of a catastrophic explosion that could have generated a large amount of space debris,” the agency said.
‘Its batteries were dead and its communication antenna and onboard electronic systems were turned off.
“There is no longer any possibility to actively control the movement of the satellite from Earth during its descent.”
ERS-2 was launched in 1995, following its sister satellite, ERS-1, which had launched four years earlier.
Both satellites carried the latest high-tech instruments, including a radar altimeter (which sends pulses of radio waves toward the ground) and powerful sensors to measure ocean surface temperature and offshore winds.
ERS-2 had an additional sensor to measure the ozone content in our planet’s atmosphere, which is important for blocking radiation from the sun.
ERS-1 is no longer operational, having suffered a malfunction in 2000, but its exact whereabouts are unknown.