Photographs show a European satellite collapsing to its fiery doom on Earth

Photographs show a European satellite collapsing to its fiery doom on Earth

Aeolus was the first satellite to study surface winds on a global scale.
European Space Agency

  • Photos show a European satellite falling to its doom before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.
  • The European Space Agency performed a first-of-its-kind maneuver on a satellite as it launched.
  • ESA said this control method reduced the risk of local debris impacts and collisions with local debris.

The European Space Agency has released photos showing its Aeolus satellite falling to a fiery demise as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 16,700 mph.

The Aeolus satellite was launched in 2018. It was the first satellite with powerful laser technology capable of observing the atmosphere on a global scale.

Over its 5-year mission, Aeolus has improved weather forecasts and climate models, according to ESA. But Aeolus was retired in July, at which point it went from a thin satellite to just a dirty one.

When nearby satellites become inactive, they often fall out of orbit, return to Earth, and burn up in our planet’s atmosphere, according to NASA.

This is, in fact, what happened with Aeolus but in a more controlled way than usual.

ESA took Aeolus’ end as an opportunity to try the first reentry method called “assisted reentry,” ESA said in a statement Tuesday.

Reinstallation assistance can make decommissioning via satellite safe

The assisted reentry maneuver involves a series of deorbits, in which the satellite entered closer and closer to Earth, but remained in orbit.

This allows ESA to accurately map where the satellite will eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, helping to reduce the risk of any debris that has not fully burned up coming close to any populated areas.

Ultimately, ESA calculated that the satellite would launch and burn over Antarctica, far from any populated areas. About 80% of the satellite burned up and 20% survived re-entry, according to

A map showing the location of the Aeolus satellite as it approached Earth where it eventually burned up over Antarctica.
European Space Agency

“By modifying the natural Aeolus, the uncontrolled re-entry of the aid, and choosing the best re-entry method, the already very small risk to any surviving pieces living near the inhabited areas is made 150 times less risk,” ESA said.

In addition, the assisted re-entry method meant “the time that Aeolus was left unmanned in orbit was reduced by a few weeks, reducing the risk of collisions with other satellites in this important space path,” ESA said in a statement.

More waste space, more risk, more steps needed

There were more than 6,000 active, operational satellites in orbit by 2022, compared to just under 1,000 in 2010. This means there is a high risk of satellites crashing into each other, and space debris flying into human settlements on Earth.

Although no one has ever been seriously injured by space debris, the risk is real and growing as more satellites enter Earth orbit, ESA said.

Waste of space that has settled in Texas.

The more traffic there is up there, the more likely it is that debris can fall, ESA said. Especially as defunct satellites continue to operate aloft without guidance from Earth.

With these issues in mind, ESA promises to be more careful when it comes to their local waste. “Making space operations safe is a matter of utmost importance to the agency,” ESA said.

Aeolus-assisted reentry was part of that mission to make satellite reentry safe.

“With Aeolus, in a wonderful example of sustainable spaceflight and responsible operations, we stayed with the mission as long as possible, guiding its return as best we could,” Aeolus Mission Manager Tommaso Parrinello said in a statement.

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