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Chinese Science Satellite Ends Mission in Fiery Plunge

A Chinese satellite plunged into the Earth's atmosphere anddestroyed itself this week to end an extended mission studying the planet'smagnetic field.

The science satellite, dubbed TC-1, was officiallydecommissioned Sunday after lasting three years beyond its planned one-yearmission lifetime. The spacecraft burned up as it reentered the Earth'satmosphere, according to a mission update.

TC-1, and its counterpart TC-2, were the first satellitesbuilt and operated by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) incooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). Together they made up DoubleStar, China's first scientific mission, whichused the two spacecraft surveying Earth?s magnetic environment and the responseto solar disturbances.

Workingtogether with the ESA?s four Cluster satellites, Double Star discoveredthousands of bubbles of superheated gas where the solar wind strikes theEarth?s magnetic field. The satellites also unexpectedly plowed throughwaves of electrical and magnetic energy in the Earth?s night-time shadow – thetail of planet's magnetic cloak – as it oscillates in the same manner of thewake behind a boat. That data clued scientists into the effects of spaceweather on Earth?s magnetic field.

"DoubleStar has demonstrated mutual benefit and fostered scientific cooperation inspace research between China and Europe. But there isstill much more to come as the full, high-resolution data archive becomesavailable," said Philippe Escoubet, project scientist for the ESA?sCluster and Double Star.

Thesatellites also found that chorus emissions – waves naturally generated inspace close to Earth?s magnetic equator – are created further away from theplanet during periods of high geomagnetic activity. Such electromagneticactivity can create what ESA researchers termed ?killer electrons,? which candamage sensitive electronic equipment on spacecraft and pose a threat toastronauts. The information gathered by Double Star allows for betterforecasting of these events.

WhileDouble Star represented the first joint Chinese-European space mission, China has beenlaunching satellites since 1970 and launched its firsttwo manned spaceflights in 2003 and 2005, respectively.

Thecountry plans to launch its first lunar orbiter, Chang'e 1, in late Octoberaccording to state media reports.

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Jeremy Hsu is science writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discovery Magazine, Backchannel, and IEEE Spectrum, among others. He joined the and Live Science teams in 2010 as a Senior Writer and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Indicate Media.  Jeremy studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a master's degree in journalism from the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. You can find Jeremy's latest project on Twitter (opens in new tab)