Zombie Satellites – Should We Fear the Graveyard Orbit of Un-dead Satellites?

If you’re prepared for ghosts, ghouls and goblins this Halloween, you might want to also consider zombies…satellites that is.

Deep in outer space, where machines orbit the Earth, they share the sky with the un-dead. Can these historic satellites come back to life?

After a satellite completes its useful life and has reached its fuel capacity it can be sent to its death in two ways. It either falls back into Earth’s atmosphere, only to reach a fiery death as it burns up on atmosphere re-entry. For satellites orbiting close to Earth, operators lower the orbit of a decommissioned satellite so that it will naturally re-enter the atmosphere within 25 years (known as the “25-year Rule”). As the satellite begins to fall back toward Earth and loses altitude, the compression and friction in the dense region of the atmosphere closest to the Earth generates a lot of heat which breaks up and burns most of the satellite machinery.

Or, if the satellite has enough fuel, it can fly back through the atmosphere and be crashed into the ocean. Newer ‘low earth orbiting’ satellites like NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP, have enough fuel to safely deorbit them back into the ocean. This method is preferred as it avoids the less predictable re-entry process.

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