Why do satellites tumble to death?

When satellites die or malfunction they typically begin tumbling in space to a certain death.

But no one seems to know why.

space debris around earth medium

The European Space Agency has launched a study to figure out this death tumble as part of its effort to clean up orbital debris.

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ESA says this Clean Space initiative - tasked with reducing the space industry's environmental impact on Earth and space - plans to transform scientists understanding of how large, dead objects behave in space, encompassing launcher upper stages as well as satellites.  

In recent years, satellites beginning uncontrolled reentries have been tracked, such as Russia's Phobos-Grunt and Germany's Rosat, the ESA states. In a few cases, satellites suffering unexpected failures in orbit have also been followed, including ESA's Envisat and Japan's ADEOS-II.

The aim of a new study is to combine detailed computer analysis with a range of ground-based observations, some which have only rarely been tried.

For example, Optical telescopes and ground radar are today's favored monitoring methods, but the study will also investigate the potential of optical and radar satellites in nearby orbits for space-to-space observations. Highly accurate laser ranging will also be attempted. A global network of ground stations would bounce lasers off a satellite's retroreflectors - like 'cat's eyes' built into an expressway, the ESA stated.

Figuring out satellites tumbling death dance will also help the ESA's  Clean Space program when it launches its dedicated satellite salvage mission called e.DeOrbit.

ESA says e.DeOrbit is designed to target debris items in well-trafficked polar orbits, between 800 km to 1000 km altitude. At around 1600 kg, e.DeOrbit will be launched on ESA's Vega rocket.

"The first technical challenge the mission will face is to capture a massive, drifting object left in an uncertain state, which may well be tumbling rapidly. Sophisticated imaging sensors and advanced autonomous control will be essential, first to assess its condition and then approach it," ESA stated.

In the US, DARPA has a satellite recovery technology under development that will enable a recovery spacecraft try to mimic tumbling dead satellites in order to grab them.

That project, called Phoenix would use a squadron "satlets" and a larger tender craft to grab out-of-commission satellites and  retrofit or retrieve them for parts or reuse.  DARPA in 2012 said it  concluded some of the most critical design tests of the Phoenix program - designing the algorithms that would help these satlets approach and tumble in sequence with the system they are trying to catch. 

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