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Watch Scientists Melt a Satellite Part to See How Stuff Burns Up During Reentry

European researchers melted a dense satellite part in a special space fire created in a lab in hopes of better protecting people on Earth from falling debris as satellites re-enter our atmosphere.

A new video shows a 2-inch by 4-inch (5-centimeter by 10-centimeter) instrument called a magnetotorquer dramatically turning to liquid inside of a plasma wind tunnel. This facility at the German Space Agency (DLR) in Cologne, Germany, simulates the superheated gas (or plasma) that satellites experience during re-entry. By the time the test was over, the instrument had been exposed to temperatures of several thousand degrees Fahrenheit (or Celsius), and was transformed into vapor.

The research is vital to help scientists understand how satellites fall apart during their descent to Earth; most pieces usually burn up in the atmosphere, but occasionally something survives and plunges to the surface of our planet. 

Related: If NASA's Satellite Falls on Your Home, Who Pays for Repairs?

A magentotorquer being melted as part of a European Space Agency project aimed at building spacecraft parts that are less prone to reaching Earth in large pieces at the end of a satellite's life. (Image credit: ESA/DLR)

The most notorious incident was NASA's Skylab space station, fragments of which unexpectedly rained down over rural Australia in 1979. Other incidents followed: In 1997, for example, Texans Steve and Verona Gutowski woke up to a large noise and discovered something that looked like "a dead rhinoceros" only 165 feet (50 meters) from their farmhouse. The item was actually was a 550-pound (250-kilogram) fuel tank that fell off a spent rocket stage, the European Space Agency said in a release published with the new video.

"Modern space debris regulations demand that such incidents should not happen. Uncontrolled reentries should have a less than 1-in-10,000 chance of injuring anyone on the ground," the statement reads. "As part of a larger effort called CleanSat, ESA is developing technologies and techniques to ensure future low-orbiting satellites are designed according to the concept of 'D4D' — design for demise."

Hence the satellite campfire. ESA is deliberately testing satellite parts that are prone to survival in order to better design them for a fatal breakup. Magnetotorquers, which use the Earth's magnetic field to align satellites, are one of the most robust satellite parts. Other examples include optical instruments, propellant and pressure tanks and the drive mechanisms for gyroscopes (reaction wheels) or solar arrays.

In particular, ESA is hoping to learn how to prevent these parts from simply breaking up, since more pieces of debris means more chances of hitting something or someone. Instead, the agency hopes to build parts that safely and completely burn up long before they approach Earth's surface. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.