Watch a chunk of satellite melt like a marshmallow on fire

European Space Agency researchers go all Raiders of the Lost Ark on a satellite piece.

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

The rod-shaped magnetotorquer was largely vaporized during the process.


Space junk is a worrisome problem, especially when wayward bits of technology survive reentry and land back on Earth as angry hunks of debris. European Space Agency researchers wanted to learn more about how satellites burn up during reentry, so they fried a satellite chunk in a plasma wind tunnel to see what happens. The footage is impressive.

The plasma wind tunnel, located at the DLR German Aerospace Center, can reproduce the blazing-hot conditions of reentry from Earth's orbit. The satellite piece was a small magnetotorquer, a component that helps orient a satellite. It contains carbon fiber, polymer composite, copper coils and an iron-cobalt center. 

Magnetotorquers are one of several satellite components that may resist burning up completely during reentry. The magnetotorquer eventually mostly vaporized in the high temperatures, which reached "several thousand of degrees Celsius."

The researchers compared the actual results to what they predicted would happen, and noted "some discrepancies with the prediction models." 

The fiery experiment was part of ESA's Clean Space initiative. Watching a satellite bit burn is beguiling, but it could also help prevent future accidents where space junk makes an unwelcome return to Earth.

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