The European Space Agency (ESA) has unveiled the last images of its wind-profiling spacecraft, Aeolus, before its descent into the atmosphere. Aeolus was the first satellite designed to track terrestrial winds, providing crucial data for climate studies and meteorology. The final images, captured by radar, show Aeolus tumbling as it interacted with Earth’s atmosphere at near orbital speed.
The spacecraft was commanded to perform an “assisted reentry” in its final moments. By using its remaining fuel to progressively lower its orbit and turning off its instruments, Aeolus became the first spacecraft to attempt this method of reentry. The images, produced by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany using a radar antenna, provided a colorful representation of the intensity of radar signals bounced off the spacecraft.
After the final images were taken, the atmosphere swiftly pulled Aeolus down to Earth, causing it to reenter approximately two hours later. It is estimated that about 80% of the spacecraft has burned up, with the remaining 20% surviving reentry over Antarctica. This landmark reentry operation aimed to test new methods of reducing the risk of debris reaching Earth.
The successful reentry reduced the risk of falling debris by a factor of 150 and shortened the time during which Aeolus was uncontrolled in orbit, minimizing the risk of collision with other satellites in space. The ESA stated that these procedures will inform end-of-life plans for future missions.
Aeolus’s mission manager, Tommaso Parrinello, emphasized the significance of the spacecraft’s sustainable and responsible operations. The ESA guided Aeolus’s return as much as possible, demonstrating their commitment to sustainable spaceflight. The spacecraft’s legacy will continue to contribute to advancements in climate studies and meteorology, even after its fiery descent into the atmosphere.