Watch a Satellite Reaction Wheel Melt in a Simulated Orbital Re-Entry

Most satellites share the same fate at the end of their lives. Their orbits decay, and eventually, they plunge through the atmosphere toward Earth. Most satellites are destroyed during their rapid descent, but not always

Heavy pieces of the satellite, like reaction wheels, can survive and strike the Earth. Engineers are trying to change that.

Satellite debris can strike Earth and is a potential hazard, though the chances of debris striking anything other than ocean or barren land are low. Expired satellites usually just re-enter the atmosphere and burn up. But there are a lot of satellites, and their number keeps growing.

In February 2024, the ESA’s European Remote Sensing 2 (ERS2) satellite fell to Earth. The ESA tracked the satellite and concluded that it posed no problem. “The odds of a piece of satellite falling on someone’s head is estimated at one in a billion,” ESA space debris system engineer Benjamin Bastida Virgili said.

That would be fine if ERS 2 was an isolated incident. But, according to the ESA, an object about as massive as ERS 2 reenters Earth’s atmosphere every one to two weeks. The statistics may show there’s no threat to people, but statistics are great until you’re one of them.

The ESA’s ERS-2 Earth observation satellite was destroyed when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on February 21st, 2004. Heavy parts of satellites, like reaction wheels, don’t always burn up in the atmosphere and can pose a hazard. ESA engineers are working on reaction wheels that will break into pieces to reduce the hazard. Image Credit: Fraunhofer FHR

The risk of being struck by chunks of a satellite isn’t zero. In 1997, a piece of mesh from a Delta II rocket struck someone’s shoulder in Oklahoma. It was a light piece of debris, so the person was okay. But it was an instructive event.

The heaviest parts of satellites, like reaction wheels, can be hazardous because they may not be destroyed during re-entry. Reaction wheels provide three-axis control for satellites without the need for rockets. They give satellites fine pointing accuracy and are useful for rotating satellites in very small amounts.

Reaction wheels can be quite massive. The Hubble Space Telescope has four reaction wheels weighing 45 kg (100 lbs) each. Other satellites don’t have such massive wheels, but the Hubble’s hefty wheels indicate the extent of the hazard. ESA engineers are designing reaction wheels that will break up during re-entry to reduce the hazard of one striking Earth.

“… the need is becoming urgent as more and more satellites are placed in space.”

Kobyé Bodjona, Mechanisms Engineer at the ESA

As part of the design process, they’re testing their wheels in a plasma wind tunnel at the University of Stuttgart Institute of Space Systems. The heated plasma in the tunnel moves at several km/sec, mimicking the friction a satellite is exposed to when it plunges through Earth’s atmosphere. The wheel is rotated inside the tunnel as if tumbling through the atmosphere.

At a recent Space Mechanisms Workshop at ESA’s ESTEC technical center in the Netherlands, engineers showed a clip of the blow-torch effect that the atmosphere has on falling debris.

“Space mechanisms cover everything that enables movement aboard a satellite, from deployment devices to reaction wheels,” explains workshop co-organizer Geert Smet.

“But these mechanisms often use materials such as steel or titanium that are more likely to survive reentry into the atmosphere. This is a problem because our current regulations say reentering satellites should present less than one in 10,000 risks of harming people or property on the ground or even one in 100 000 for large satellite constellations. ESA’s Clean Space group is reacting by D4D—devising methods to make total disintegration of a mission more likely, including mechanisms.”

The effort to make satellites disintegrate completely goes back a few years. The ESA program Design for Demise (D4D) is helping satellite manufacturers comply with the Space Debris Mitigation (SDM) requirements. It’s aimed at eliminating debris falling to Earth, removing debris already in orbit, and designing satellites that don’t linger in orbit after their missions have ended.

At the recent workshop, the ESA revealed more of its plans for active debris removal. There’s a push to develop dedicated spacecraft that can attach themselves to derelict satellites and force them into reentry. This will help remove dead satellites from the congested Low Earth Orbit.

“The idea behind this event is to present the mechanisms community with the latest research on space debris to see how they might contribute to the work going on,” said Kobyé Bodjona, Mechanisms Engineer at the ESA. “It’s important because large system integrators—the big companies that lead satellite projects—are going to need systems that are fully compliant with debris mitigation regulations. And the need is becoming urgent as more and more satellites are placed in space.”

Evan Gough

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