A vintage NASA satellite launched in the 1980s and long-since turned to space junk met a fiery fate late Sunday as it fell back to Earth, NASA said today.
The huge Earth observation satellite, called the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS), plunged back to Earth Sunday night (Jan. 8) at 11:04 p.m. EST (0304 GMT on Monday). The 5,400-pound (2,450 kilograms) satellite reentered over the Bering Sea, with some components potentially surviving the super-hot temperatures of reentry.
“The Department of Defense confirmed that the 5,400-pound satellite reentered the atmosphere over the Bering Sea,” NASA wrote in an update on Jan. 9 (opens in new tab). “NASA expected most of the satellite to burn up as it traveled through the atmosphere, but for some components to survive the reentry.”
Related: The Biggest Spacecraft Ever to Fall Uncontrolled From Space
NASA launched the ERBS satellite in 1984 on the space shuttle Challenger to study how the sun’s energy was absorbed and radiated by the Earth. The satellite also studied Earth’s stratosphere and other atmospheric components such as water vapor, aerosols and nitrogen oxide.
ERBS was part of NASA’s three-satellite Earth Radiation Budget Experiment program and was only designed to last two years, ending in 1986. But the satellite lasted until 2005, when NASA ultimately decommissioned ERBS in orbit. After that, it was just another 2.5-ton piece of space junk.
“ERBS far exceeded its expected two-year service life, operating until its retirement in 2005,” NASA wrote in its statement. “Its observations helped researchers measure the effects of human activities on Earth’s radiation balance.”
Related: Kessler Syndrome and the space debris problem
NASA announced the demise of the ERBS satellite late Friday when it became clear the satellite’s fall from space was certain. At the time, NASA said the risk of any debris posing an injury hazard to people on the ground was about 1 in 9,400.
Burning up on reentry may be a fitting demise for the ERBS mission to cap nearly 40 years in orbit, but it is also a reminder of the ongoing hazard space junk can pose in orbit and on Earth.
Last year, China launched two Long March 5B rockets to help build its Tiangong Space Station, one each in July and November, that rained huge chunks of debris on Earth. Each of the launches cast off a 23-ton (21 metric tons) rocket core that made an uncontrolled reentry.
In late December, the Philippine Space Agency issued a warning to the public over falling rocket debris from a different Chinese launch on Dec. 29.