NASA's satellite OGO-1 reenters Earth after spending more than 50 years in space, burns up in atmosphere

Launched in 1964 from Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft was tasked with studying the Earth's magnetosphere, a region of space surrounding our planet


                            NASA's satellite OGO-1 reenters Earth after spending more than 50 years in space, burns up in atmosphere
An artist's impression of an OGO satellite (NASA)

On August 25, experts observed a small object heading toward Earth. Further observations revealed that it was not an asteroid but an old, defunct satellite from NASA. After spending more than 50 years orbiting our planet, it entered the Earth's atmosphere over the weekend, exploding into pieces.

The satellite is Orbiting Geophysics Observatory 1, or OGO-1. Launched in 1964 from Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft was tasked with studying the Earth's magnetosphere, a region of space surrounding our planet. It is controlled by the Earth's magnetic field and is responsible for shielding us from harmful cosmic radiations and solar wind.

On August 29, it reentered Earth, posing no threat to humans, NASA spokesperson Josh Handal told Space.com. As it races toward Earth at thousands of miles per hour, the heat from air's friction burns up the satellite, according to NASA. "It was the first of a series of six missions launched, one each year from 1964 to 1969, to better understand our home planet," NASA said in a statement. All the other five have already reentered Earth's atmosphere, ending up in various parts of the world's oceans.

The satellite stayed active for five years, until 1969.  During that time, it conducted 20 experiments. After it stopped returning data, NASA placed the 487 kg spacecraft in standby mode. All support for the mission was terminated in 1971, NASA said.

Images of OGO-1 captured during asteroid survey operations on Tuesday, August 25 by the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (Catalina Sky Survey/University of Arizona/NASA)

The University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) was the first to spot the object. Confirming it was the University of Hawaii’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS). Later, both Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and European Space Agency’s NEO Coordination Center, identified the object as OGO 1.

NASA had predicted that the satellite would reenter Earth on August 29, 2020, at about 5:10 pm EDT, over the South Pacific, roughly halfway between Tahiti and the Cook Islands. But the spacecraft entered the planet's atmosphere about 25 minutes earlier than predicted. OGO-1 reentered further east of the original predicted location about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Tahiti, Handal explained.

"The spacecraft will break up in the atmosphere and poses no threat to our planet—or anyone on it—and this is a normal final operational occurrence for retired spacecraft," NASA said. Tahiti is an island in the central part of the Pacific Ocean, while the Cook Islands is in the South Pacific Ocean.

NASA tracked the spacecraft, in addition to receiving reports from locals. The Virtual Telescope Project captured images of the satellite entering Earth. "OGO-1 was seen and filmed while reentering from the French Polynesian, as expected (and without any damage, this too as expected!)," the Project lead Gianluca Masi said. When old satellites reach their end, two things can happen: "For the closer satellites, engineers will use its last bit of fuel to slow it down so it will fall out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. Further satellites are instead sent even farther away from Earth," NASA said.

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