A 5,400 pound NASA satellite is forecast to re-enter the atmosphere tonight with debris possibly crashing on Earth around 11pm ET, give or take a few hours. NASA’s Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, or ERBS for short, is heading back to Earth after being retired from service back in 2005.
Launched from the Space Shuttle Challenger on October 5, 1984, the ERBS was one of three Earth Radiation Budget Experiment missions. This satellite carried three instruments, two to measure the Earth’s radiative energy budget, and one to measure stratospheric constituents including ozone. It was designed to last for only 2 years, but performed for much longer, operating until its retirement in 2005.
Its observations helped researchers measure the effects of human activities on Earth’s radiation balance. NASA has continued to build on the success of the ERBE mission with projects including the current Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) suite of satellite instruments. The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment II (SAGE II) on the ERBS made stratospheric measurements. SAGE II collected important data that confirmed the ozone layer was declining on a global scale. That data helped shape the international Montreal Protocol Agreement, resulting in a dramatic decrease around the globe in the use of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. Today, SAGE III on the International Space Station (ISS) collects data on the health of the ozone layer.
The energy budget, the balance between the amount of energy from the Sun that Earth absorbs or radiates, is an important indicator of climate health, and understanding it can also help reveal weather patterns. Ozone concentrations in the stratosphere play an important role in protecting life on Earth from damaging ultraviolet radiation.
NASA expects most of the satellite to burn up as it travels through the atmosphere, but some components are expected to survive the reentry. The risk of harm coming to anyone on Earth is relatively low – approximately 1 in 9,400.
The Department of Defense and Space Force is currently tracking the debris, as are other entities like Aerospace Corporation.
According to Aerospace Corporation, it is possible the debris could hit eastern Russia or China. NASA nor the Department of Defense have made any comment about this possibility.
Last November, an out-of-control rocket from China risked crashing into the U.S. among many other places around the world. It ultimately crashed in the Pacific in the area between Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast.
Last January, an out-of-control rocket from Russia also barely missed hitting the U.S., but it too crashed into the Pacific Ocean.