The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a first-of-its-kind mission to return an out-of-service satellite, Aeolus, to Earth. This mission could open the path for satellites that were never planned for controlled descent to return safely.

After completing its mission, the satellite has been descending from its operational altitude of 320 kilometres above the planet’s surface since June 19. On Monday, July 24, ESA mission operators utilised the last of Aeolus’ fuel to undertake the first of several key moves that would help steer the satellite slowly back to Earth.

The final manoeuvre is set for Friday, July 28, when the satellite will be guided from an altitude of 150 kilometres to just 120 kilometres. The satellite will begin reentering the atmosphere at this point. The majority of the satellite would burn up at a height of roughly 80 kilometres, although a few bits might reach the Earth’s surface. If all goes as planned, this shouldn’t be a problem because the mission controllers are aiming for a remote section of the Atlantic Ocean.

According to the European Space Agency, the Atlantic Ocean gives the best satellite visibility during the last reentry phase. The agency also states that the overall risk of reentering satellites is negligible, and that this attempt will cut that risk by 42 times.

Aeolus, named after the Greek mythological wind warden, was launched in 2018 and was the first satellite to directly record wind speeds and directions all around the world, allowing scientists to enhance global weather forecasts.

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