Skywatcher Photos Show Last Days of Falling German Satellite

This exclusive image was made by Ralf Vandebergh, who said: ""It is false-color to increase certain visible contrasts. A very special detail visible is the shadow of the body (the telescope) on the solar panels! You can see the angle with the sun and the
This exclusive image was made by Ralf Vandebergh, who said: "It is false-color to increase certain visible contrasts. A very special detail visible is the shadow of the body (the telescope) on the solar panels! You can see the angle with the sun and the observer (me) as ROSAT passed not overhead but [at] 51.4 degrees northern latitude. This is a very difficult observation as the object is very small." (Image credit: Ralf Vandebergh for

Skywatchers in Europe have snapped some of the final photos of a doomed German satellite slated to plunge to Earth this weekend in an uncontrolled death dive.

The photos show the defunct 21-year-old Roentgen Satellite, or ROSAT, as the spacecraft spent its final days in orbit. The 2.7-ton ROSAT is expected to fall to Earth sometime between Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning (Oct. 22 or 23), but scientists cannot predict exactly when or where the satellite will be when it begins its fiery plunge through Earth's atmosphere.

During ROSAT's last days in space, skywatchers around the world have trained their eyes — as well as cameras and telescopes — on the satellite.

Veteran satellite spotter Ralf Vandebergh in the Netherlands has been keeping a close tabs on ROSAT using a camera-equipped telescope, and even snapped a photo for this week that showed the satellite's body and solar panels.

"Since ROSAT fell to a lower height in recent times, it [has] became increasingly difficult to spot him," Vandebergh told in an email. "Luckily we had, in the past week, several passes in the early dusk so the satellite was still well-lit." [Photos of the falling ROSAT satellite]

ROSAT, Vandebergh said, has been a bit harder to observe than NASA's school bus-size Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), which also fell to Earth last month. NASA's UARS satellite was a huge object weighing nearly 6.5 tons. ROSAT is smaller, weighing about 2.7 tons.

"ROSAT is a rather difficult object in the telescope, due its relatively small size," Vandebergh said. "Details are therefore much harder to photograph than, for example UARS."

On Oct. 14, 2011, astrophotographer Marco Langbroek of the Netherlands caught this view of the German satellite ROSAT, which is expected to fall to Earth in October 2011. He said: "I just observed the satellite again, in even deeper twilight. It is moving very fast, quite a spectacular view." (Image credit: Marco Langbroek)

Another skywatcher who spotted ROSAT is Marco Langbroek, who snapped a striking long-exposure photo of the spacecraft as it passed over Leiden in the Netherlands.

"It is moving very fast, quite a spectacular view," Langbroek told "It takes less than a minute for it to travel over a significant part of the sky."

The key to spotting ROSAT has been knowing where to look, he added.

"You have to keep a close watch on the relevant parts of the sky though, as it is gone again before you know it," Langbroek said.

German Aerospace Center officials have said they cannot predict exactly where and when ROSAT will fall to Earth, but they do expect at least 30 large pieces of the satellite to survive the fiery re-entry through the atmosphere and hit the planet. Altogether, about 1.7 tons of the satellite debris could rain down over a 50-mile (80-kilometer) stretch of the Earth's surface, German space officials have said.

There is a 1-in-2,000 chance that ROSAT debris could injure one of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth, but the actual personal risk per person is extremely remote, they added.

"Where any remnants of ROSAT will fall is currently difficult to say, it is most likely that it falls just as UARS in the ocean, because it covers the most area," Vandebergh said. "Though we should watch out, as we could be misled now by the fact that UARS fell in the ocean. Maybe this time it's different."

Editor's note: If you snap a photo or observe the re-entry of the ROSAT satellite and want to share it with for a story or gallery, contact managing editor Tariq Malik at:

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.