25 March 2000

Controlled Burn-Up For Satellite

by Kate Melville

NASA's long-lived Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory mission -- which exceeded its mission by four years and completely changed ideas on the most important unsolved puzzles in astrophysics -- has come to end with the failure of one of the satellite's three gyroscopes. The propulsion system on Compton lacks sufficient fuel to boost the spacecraft to a higher, longer-lived orbit. Left alone, Compton will eventually fall from orbit due to a minute drag from the Earth's tenuous atmosphere at Compton's orbital height. Unlike most other satellites, Compton is too large to burn up entirely in the atmosphere during reentry. An uncontrolled reentry would expose some area under its orbital path (28.5 degrees north and south latitude) to the risk of falling debris.

The decision to reenter Compton before a second gyroscope fails, even though the satellite is functioning normally, was made at NASA Headquarters on March 23, 2000, after extensive study to consider all options. Research showed it was significantly safer to perform a controlled reentry than any other method of dealing with the satellite.

Debris from the reentry will be scattered over an area estimated to be 16 miles wide and 962 miles long. The center of the reentry area is on the equator approximately 2,500 miles southeast of Hawaii (about 120 degrees west longitude). A large portion of the satellite will vaporize as it transits the atmosphere, and most of the pieces that survive will be tiny, about the size of a pea or a grain of sand. However, Compton contains structures made of titanium, which are expected to fall as larger pieces.

Compton flight controllers, stationed at Goddard, will fire Compton's propulsion system thrusters in the direction opposite to its orbital motion, which will slow the spacecraft down and cause its orbital height to decrease so that it reenters the atmosphere. There will be four separate firings of the propulsion system thrusters, each about a day apart. After each firing, Compton's new orbit will be determined precisely, and the performance of the thrusters will be evaluated. The thruster performance varies according to the pressure of the propellant, so the thrusters will not perform the same way because each firing consumes propellant, which decreases its pressure.