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A plasma wind tunnel destroys a satellite model in an atmospheric re-entry test

The European Space Agency has revealed a simulation of what happens when “one of the most massive elements on a satellite” re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

According to the video published by the agency, a tunnel of plasma winds has completely vaporized a satellite model, which shows how the speed and heat of re-entry into the atmosphere can wipe out even the largest parts of space satellites.

The European Space Agency explained that this complete destruction is a good thing, because the fast-moving space debris entering the Earth’s atmosphere can pose a significant risk if the space junk survives the pressures of re-entry.

In a statement, representatives of the space agency said that by testing the temperature thresholds of satellites, engineers can design spacecraft that are powerful enough to do their job, but that will also burn safely in the atmosphere as they fall to Earth.

After the satellite’s mission is complete, operators can remove the object from orbit using its control system to lower the satellite’s perigee, or orbital point, closest to Earth, in what is known as controlled reentry.

When the perihelion is low enough, gravity takes over and pulls the spacecraft down, according to the European Space Agency.

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This method re-enters the atmosphere at a very steep angle, thus ensuring that debris will then hit a relatively small area. Satellite operators usually target the open ocean to reduce risks to people, according to the European Space Agency.

In comparison, unsupervised reentries do not send the satellite into a designated landing area. But in order for an operator to send a satellite into Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled landing, federal satellite-regulating agencies require proof that the risk of injury from a collision is less than 1 in 10,000, according to the European Space Agency.

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To achieve this degree of certainty, engineers must demonstrate that all parts of the falling satellite will burn before they come close to Earth, as evidenced by the satellite’s melting in footage filmed inside a test room of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), in Cologne, Germany. Scientists there simulated re-entry conditions using gas heated by an electric arc to temperatures of more than 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit (6,700 degrees Celsius), according to DLR’s Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology.

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How do little bits of space junk cause incredible damage?

In the video, the Solar Array Drive Mechanism (SADM), the part of the satellite that guides the position of solar panels, and one of the largest parts of a model satellite, enters the plasma wind chamber.

Experiments to make SADM more susceptible to atmospheric destruction began a year ago. In the first phase, the researchers built software models for SADM that tested the melting point of a new type of aluminum screw.

The scientists then built a 3D physical model of SADM using new aluminum screws, and put it to the test inside the plasma chamber. The model encountered wind speeds of thousands of miles per hour, which reproduced conditions similar to atmospheric re-entry, and the result was an evaporated SADM just as the software models predicted, according to ESA representatives.

Satellite melt experiments like this are also part of the European Space Agency’s program, called CleanSat, in which the agency investigates and tests new technologies so that future designs for low-orbiting satellites follow a concept known as “D4D” or “design for demise,” according to European Space Agency.

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Source: Live Science