Defunct NASA Spacecraft Comes Home After 21 Years

What happens to NASA satellites after their useful life is complete? One NASA satellite that saw solar flares and helped scientists understand the sun’s powerful bursts of energy fell to Earth this week, approximately 21 years after launch.

The Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) spacecraft, launched in 2002 and decommissioned in 2018, reentered Earth’s atmosphere Wednesday at approximately 8:21 p.m. ET. The reentry took place over the Sahara Desert. NASA expected most of the spacecraft would burn up as it traveled through the atmosphere, but some components may survive reentry.

The spacecraft was equipped with an imaging spectrometer to record the sun’s X-rays and gamma rays. From its low-Earth orbit, the satellite captured images of high-energy electrons that carry a large part of the energy released in solar flares. Before RHESSI, no gamma-ray images or high-energy X-ray images had been taken of solar flares, and data from the spacecraft provided vital clues about the phenomena.

During its career, RHESSI documented the huge range in solar flare size, from tiny nanoflares to massive superflares that were tens of thousands of times bigger and more explosive.

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