5,400-Pound NASA Satellite Falls Back to Earth After 38 Years in Space

Some satellite components may have survived reentry and splashed into the sea.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
Funky old satellite pictured in orbit above a cloudy Earth.
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Funky old satellite pictured in orbit above a cloudy Earth.

NASA's retired Earth Radiation Budget Satellite reached the final stage of its existence on Jan. 8. 


Here's one for the "what goes up must come down" file. NASA's retired Earth Radiation Budget Satellite got a blazing welcome back to Earth on Sunday after nearly four decades in space. The Department of Defense confirmed the 5,400-pound (2,450-kilogram) satellite had reentered Earth's atmosphere over the Bering Sea, NASA said on Monday. 

ERBS made contributions to climate and weather science. Atmospheric reentry as a retirement present was a long time coming for the old satellite, which originally launched from the Space Shuttle Challenger in late 1984. 

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The satellite had an expected two-year-service life, but it blew past that mark. "For 21 of its years in orbit, the ERBS actively investigated how the Earth absorbed and radiated energy from the sun, and made measurements of stratospheric ozone, water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, and aerosols," NASA said.

Spacefaring machines that come back to Earth are subject to an intense reentry process. NASA expected most of ERBS to burn up, "but for some components to survive the reentry." The return trajectory over a body of water means anything that wasn't toast likely fell harmlessly into the sea.

The satellite's uneventful fall back to its home planet is a bit of good news at a time when orbital space is increasingly crowded with junk, debris and defunct satellites. ERBS went out in a blaze of glory after its distinguished service to science.