A dead satellite was meant to crash back to Earth but nobody knows where it is

An artist’s illustration of the European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS-2) satellite (Picture: ESA/SWNS)

A European satellite was supposed to fall out of space and burn up in the atmosphere – but nobody knows where it is.

Scientists knew the craft, the European Remote Sensing 2 satellite (ERS-2), was going to plummet back into the atmosphere, but weren’t entirely sure when.

In recent days the European Space Agency (ESA) had been tracking the satellite as its orbit began to decay, but was unable to control it anyway, making it a ‘natural’ re-entry.

Most of the satellite is expected to have burned up as it raced through the atmosphere, but some debris may have survived the fiery journey.

The ‘re-entry window’ for the satellite has narrowed throughout the day, with the ESA giving a final time as 5.05pm GMT – and they’re not sure whether the satellite entered the atmosphere or not.

A spokesman said: ‘We have now reached the end of the final re-entry window. We have received no new observations of ERS-2.

One of the latest pictures of the doomed satellite as it plummeted towards Earth (Picture: HEO/SWNS)
The final image captured by ERS-2, taken while above Rome, Italy, on July 4, 2011 (Picture: ESA/SWNS)

‘This may mean that the satellite has already re-entered, but we are waiting for information from our partners before we can confirm.’

Any pieces of the satellite that did survive are expected to be spread out over an area hundreds of kilometres long and tens of kilometres wide – mostly over the ocean.

The agency said the risk of debris posing danger to anyone on the ground was very low.

When it launched in April 1995, ERS-2 was the most sophisticated Earth observation spacecraft ever developed in Europe.

Together with the almost-identical ERS-1, it collected a wealth of valuable data on Earth’s land surfaces, oceans and polar caps, and was called upon to monitor natural disasters such as severe flooding or earthquakes in remote parts of the world.

In 2011, after almost 16 years of operations, ESA took the decision to bring the mission to an end. A series of deorbiting manoeuvres was carried out to lower the satellite’s average altitude and mitigate the risk of collision with other satellites or space debris.

‘The ERS-2 satellite, together with its predecessor ERS-1, changed our view of the world in which we live,’ said Mirko Albani, head of ESA’s Heritage Space Programme.

‘It provided us with new insights on our planet, the chemistry of our atmosphere, the behaviour of our oceans, and the effects of humankind’s activity on our environment.’

This is a developing news story, more to follow soon… Check back shortly for further updates.

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