The European Space Agency (ESA) has released footage of the final moments of the Aeolus satellite as it made a groundbreaking “assisted reentry” into Earth’s atmosphere. Launched on August 22, 2018, Aeolus was equipped with a Doppler wind lidar instrument called Aladin, which measured wind speeds across the planet. By emitting pulses of ultraviolet light and analyzing the fraction of light that returned, Aeolus provided valuable data for weather forecasts and climate models.
Unfortunately, the satellite’s mission concluded on July 28, 2022, when it ran out of fuel. To ensure the safe disposal of Aeolus, four assisted reentry maneuvers were performed, guiding the 1,360kg satellite to reenter the atmosphere over the Antarctic, away from populated areas. This significantly reduced the risk of debris falling to Earth and minimized the time the satellite spent in uncontrolled orbit.
The ESA has now released an animation of Aeolus’s final moments as it traveled through the atmosphere. The imagery was captured by the Space Observation Radar TIRA at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, just two hours before the satellite broke apart and burned up over the Antarctic.
Tommaso Parrinello, the Aeolus mission manager, highlighted the mission’s emphasis on sustainable spaceflight and responsible operations. He expressed the team’s fondness for the mission and its lasting impact. Space debris, including satellites and rocket fragments, reenter Earth’s atmosphere approximately once a week, but they typically do not cause any harm.
In recent years, there have been instances of falling space debris, such as the wreckage of an unmanned Soyuz-2 rocket over Melbourne and Tasmania, as well as a three-meter-long piece of a SpaceX rocket found in an Australian farmer’s field. To mitigate the risks associated with space debris, there have been calls for the implementation of a space “highway code” to prevent accidents and reduce space junk.