Tech by VICE

Watch Scientists Torch a Satellite to Help Protect People From Space Debris

Burning up satellite parts in laboratories could help reduce the amount of space debris that impacts Earth.

by Becky Ferreira
Jun 18 2019, 4:38pm

Melted satellite. Image: DLR/ESA

Most defunct space debris burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, but scientists don’t want to take chances with the occasional chunks that make it through.

That’s why a European Space Agency (ESA) team recently exposed a particularly robust part of a satellite to reentry-like temperatures of “several thousands of degrees Celsius,” according to an ESA statement on Monday. The simulated demise of a magnetotorquer—an instrument that helps orient some satellites in space—was filmed in a plasma wind tunnel at the DLR German Aerospace Center in Cologne.

Every year, a huge amount of obsolete space junk burns up when it is deorbited. But hardy components such as magnetotorquers, optical instruments, fuel tanks, and gyroscopes can survive the journey intact.

The amount of space junk has been growing for decades, and it is expected to continue cluttering up Earth’s orbit as access to space becomes more affordable and widespread. The experiment aims to inform efforts to design spacecraft parts that can be more easily destroyed in the atmosphere.

Though the likelihood of a person getting hit by space debris will remain astronomically low—about one in 70 trillion, scientists say—it will still rise in tandem with the growing volumes of defunct spacecraft parts in orbit.

ESA founded its Clean Space initiative to anticipate future problems with space debris. But it’s also just a great excuse to watch a high-tech piece of equipment get thoroughly torched.