A Plasma Wind Tunnel Destroys a Satellite Model in an Atmospheric Re-Entry Test

Satellite parts that melt away during reentry reduce the risk of space debris impacts on Earth.

In a video from the European Space Agency (ESA), a plasma wind tunnel completely vaporizes a model of a satellite, demonstrating how the speed and heat of atmospheric reentry can obliterate even the bulkiest parts of space satellites.

A Plasma Wind Tunnel Destroys a Satellite Model in an Atmospheric Re-Entry Test
ESA scientists simulated the burn-up during the atmospheric reentry of one of the bulkiest items aboard a typical satellite. (Image credit: Copyright ESA/DLR)

That complete annihilation is a good thing.

This is why: If fast-moving space debris survives the stresses of reentry, it could pose a serious threat. Engineers can design spacecraft that are robust enough to do their jobs while also safely burning up in the atmosphere during their fall to Earth by testing satellite heat thresholds, ESA representatives said in a statement.

After a satellite’s mission is completed, its operators can use its control system to lower the satellite’s perigee, or the orbital point closest to Earth, in a controlled reentry. According to ESA, once the perigee is low enough, gravity takes over and pulls the spacecraft down. This method causes the satellite to reenter the atmosphere at a steep angle, ensuring that the debris will land in a relatively small area. According to ESA, satellite operators typically target the open ocean to reduce the risk to people.

Uncontrolled reentries, on the other hand, do not send the satellite to a designated landing area. However, federal satellite-regulating agencies require proof that the risk of casualties from impacts is less than one in 10,000, according to ESA, before an operator can send a satellite plummeting into Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled descent.

To achieve that degree of certainty, еngineers must demonstrate that all parts of the falling satellite will burn up before they reach the ground, as seen in footage shot inside a test chamber at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, Germany. According to the DLR’s Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology, scientists there used gas heated by an electric arc to temperatures of more than 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit (6,700 degrees Celsius) to simulate atmospheric reentry conditions.

Satellite-melting experiments such as this are also part of an ESA program called CleanSat, in which the agency is investigating and testing new technologies so that future designs of low-orbiting satellites will follow a grim-sounding concept: “D4D,” or “Design for Demise,” according to ESA.

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