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“Gravity”-style space debris threat from giant satellite explored in student paper

Posted February 20, 2014
The new home of Envisat
Artist’s impression of Envisat. Credits: ESA
Physics students at the University of Leicester have pointed out that the huge observational satellite Envisat – which lost contact with Earth in 2012 – could potentially pose a threat similar to the events which plague Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-nominated sci-fi thriller Gravity.

What’s more, the task of bringing the satellite back to Earth may be too costly and complex to be feasible, according to their final year paper for the Journal of Physics Special Topics, a peer-reviewed student journal run by the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Envisat, an £1.8 billion, 9 metre-long behemoth, was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2002, and used ten sophisticated sensors to observe and monitor Earth’s land, atmosphere, oceans and ice caps.

However, ESA lost contact with the satellite in April, 2012 – and declared the end of the mission soon after. The satellite now orbits the Earth free from human control at an altitude of 790km – where the amount of space debris around the planet is greatest.

This means there is a chance of collision with other satellites and debris during the 150 years it is expected to remain in space. Each year, two objects are expected to pass Envisat to within about 200m and other spacecraft have had to move out of Envisat’s path.

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