This is What Happens to Spacecraft When They Re-Enter the Earth’s Atmosphere

When one of the Russian Progress resupply ships undocks from the International Space Station, timing is everything. The Progress needs to fire its engines at just the right time to instigate the deorbit burn in order for the ship to enter the atmosphere at just the right place, so that its destructive re-entry occurs over the Pacific Ocean. That way, any potential surviving bits and pieces that might reach Earth will hit far away from any land masses – which are home to people, buildings, and other things we don’t want to get bonked.

Last week, the timing for the Progress MS-15 cargo ship was just right so that the astronauts/cosmonauts on board the ISS could see the ship as it broke apart and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.  JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi shared the view on social media.

“Farewell, Progress 76P MS-15! #Russian cargo spacecraft undocked from #ISS, and successfully burned up,” Noguchi tweeted, sharing a photo of the Progress’ fiery demise.  

Uncrewed Progress cargo ships have been flying since 1978, supporting previous Soviet-era space stations such as Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir. They have been bringing supplies to the ISS since the very beginning of operations.  

But now, there are several different robotic, automated resupply ships for the space station: the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), JAXA’s (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) HTV resupply ship, Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK) Cygnus cargo ship, and SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon.

The ISS Progress 60 cargo craft is seen just a few minutes away from docking to the International Space Station on July 5, 2015. Credit: NASA TV

These ships bring supplies such as food, water, replacement/spare parts, and experiments to the crew, as well as propellants and oxygen. After everything is unloaded, the ships like Progress become a trash can – a place to stow garbage and other unneeded items. The ships stay docked to the ISS for about 6 months, and after being loaded with trash and waste, the hatch to the vehicle is closed and the Progress undocks from the station. Then the procedures for reentry begin.

Progress is designed to burn up in the atmosphere, but not everything is completely combustible. In a press release, Roscosmos said the non-combustible components of the craft land and sink into a “non-navigable region of the South Pacific. Non-combustible structure elements will drop in the calculated area of the non-navigable region of the Pacific Ocean. The estimated fragments drop area is approximately 1,680 km east of Wellington (New Zealand). Roscosmos has completed all the necessary procedures to flag this area as temporarily dangerous for sea navigation and aircraft flights.”

In this Oct. 23, 2016 image, the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm captures Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft on its sixth mission to the station. Credits: NASA

But besides the cargo ships returning from the ISS, other man-made objects regularly meet their demise by streaking through and burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. Things like old, inactive satellites, rocket stages and other discarded hardware, as well as smaller pieces of space debris — such as fragments of vehicles that exploded or collided, and even small pieces of paint that have come off of space vehicles — regularly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

All these items – both big and small – are tracked by radar by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which oversees radar and optical sensors at various sites around the world. There is the Joint Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, part of U.S. Strategic Command and ESA’s Space Debris team. They detect, track and identify all objects in Earth orbit, as well as monitoring the International Space Station (ISS) and other NASA satellites for potential collisions.

Trackable objects in Low Earth Orbit. Image Credit: ESA

Interestingly, on average, about one satellite crashes back to Earth every week. Most are uncontrolled entries, and it’s kind of a crap shoot as to where any pieces surviving pieces might fall. But these fiery reentries are rarely seen, mostly because Earth is a big place, mainly covered by water, and much of what falls ends up in plopping down into the oceans. Another thing is, most of us aren’t looking up into the night sky all that often.

The Hayabusa spacecraft burned up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but the capsule containing the samples survived. The glowing piece on the bottom front of the debris stream is the sample capsule. Image: NASA Ames, Public Domain
The Hayabusa spacecraft burned up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere in 2010, but the capsule containing the samples survived. The glowing piece on the bottom front of the debris stream is the sample capsule. Image: NASA Ames.

But these reentries do get seen at times – sometimes by video surveillance cameras or dashcams. If the satellite or old rocket piece is big enough, pieces can be seen shedding off as the reentering vehicle descends in a superheated shroud of incandescent plasma. The ablation process starts around a height of 100 km and is usually complete by the time the object has descended to about 20 km. (Here’s additional info on space debris).

For example, just today (Feb. 16, 2021), the second stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 was captured reentering the atmosphere, a day after the launch of the Starlink L19 mission:

Of course, “naturally occurring” objects fall through our atmosphere too, space rocks that range in size from dust grains to small asteroids. Many times, if you see something steak across the night sky, it is hard to tell the difference between a meteor and a piece of disintegrating space debris.

Have you seen something big break apart and fall through the sky? Our own David Dickinson often reports on reentering space objects and possible sightings on his Twitter account, as well as astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks and reports on reentering objects on Twitter.

And of course, for the spacecraft we DON’T want to have break up in the atmosphere — such as crewed spacecraft, or even small things like the return capsule for the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft — there are heat shields to protect them. But that’s another story for another day.