Tomorrow, January 8, an old NASA spacecraft is scheduled to reenter the atmosphere. Although it is anticipated that most satellites will burn up in the atmosphere and pose little risk, some debris may make it to the ground. This satellite was launched in 1984 before regulations were in place, whereas NASA spacecraft launched now are designed to deorbit more gracefully and with less chance of producing space debris.
As of the most recent standards, revised in November 2019, any danger of a deorbiting satellite impacting people on Earth must be less than 1 in 10,000. That condition is only partially met by the old satellite because there is a slight increase in danger from its influence. The majority of the satellite is projected to burn up as it goes through the atmosphere, but some components should survive the reentry, according to a statement from NASA.
According to the Department of Defense, the satellite is expected to reenter the atmosphere within a 17-hour timeframe on either side of 6:40 p.m. ET on Sunday. As the potential landing location of any debris is yet unknown, tracking of the satellite will continue.
The ERBS, or Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, is a 5,400-pound satellite. It was a pioneering tool for studying climate change from space when it was launched in 1984. It measured the Earth’s radiative energy budget, the sum of the energy our planet receives from the sun, and the energy it emits into space, among other things. This measurement considers both forms like clouds and surface topography and climate elements like aerosols and greenhouse gases.
ERBS collected data until 2005, making it a 21-year mission overall, exceeding its initial two-year planned lifespan. It is noteworthy that the satellite, which was launched from the Space Shuttle Challenger, had issues at first with the deployment of its solar panels. Pioneering American astronaut Sally Ride had to use a robotic arm from the Space Shuttle to shake it loose and move the discussion into the sunlight, allowing it to deploy fully.