Defunct NASA Satellite Disintegrates Over Northern Africa

RHESSI’s time in orbit officially came to an end on Wednesday as NASA’s defunct Sun-observing satellite plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, likely burning up in a fiery flame.

The Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) spacecraft reentered Earth’s atmosphere on April 19 at 8:21 p.m. ET, flying over the Egyptian-Sudanese border on a trajectory towards northern Egypt, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote on Twitter based on data from the U.S. Space Force.

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“The Department of Defense confirmed that the 660-pound spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere over the Sahara Desert region, at approximately 26 degrees longitude and 21.3 degrees latitude,” NASA said in an updated statement. The space agency “expected most of the spacecraft to burn up as it traveled through the atmosphere, but for some components to survive re-entry.” Earlier, NASA had said that the risk of harm to people on the ground was approximately 1 in 2,467.

Earlier, there was speculation that RHESSI had reentered over Kyiv after a bright flash of light was observed over the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday night, The Guardian reported. The Ukrainian Air Force claimed that the bright flash was caused by the NASA satellite. NASA officials later denied the claim, saying that RHESSI was in fact still in orbit at the time the flash of light occurred over Ukraine, according to the BBC.

“The bright flash seen over Kyiv has NOTHING TO DO with the reentry of NASA’s RHESSI satellite, whose orbit doesn’t come within thousands of kilometers of Ukraine,” McDowell wrote on Twitter. Instead, the Ukrainian space agency later speculated that the bright light may have been caused by a meteorite entering through Earth’s atmosphere, the BBC reported.

Earlier this week, NASA announced that its retired satellite was going to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday. The satellite concluded its mission in 2018 and has been in a stable low Earth orbit ever since. RHESSI’s orbit had been slowly degrading as atmospheric drag tugged on the spacecraft, gradually lowering its orbit until it finally met its fiery demise. The spacecraft likely burned up during its reentry and there are no reports (yet) of RHESSI’s debris falling to Earth’s surface.

RHESSI launched on February 5, 2002 on a mission to monitor solar flares— dramatic eruptions of radiation that the Sun flings out into space (and sometimes towards Earth). During its 16-year-mission, RHESSI observed more than 75,000 solar flares.

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