Engineers have taken some eye-cracking footage of one of the thickest parts of a satellite getting fried into vapour inside an extremely-hot plasma wind tunnel. They demolished it in the name of science, of course.
The investigators from the European Space Agency (ESA) wanted to better understand how satellites burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as they fall from orbit. Using this knowledge could help in shielding all of us from enormous amounts of burning metal hitting the ground.
While a lot of interplanetary wreckage gets entirely burned up in the atmosphere on re-entry, some of it doesn’t, and every now and again the objects that continue are large sufficient to do some severe damage to people, wildlife, and property.
The object demolished in this experimentation was a 4 cm x 10 cm (1.6 inch x 3.9 inch) magnetotorquer, an instrument that interacts with Earth’s magnetic field to keep its satellite stable and correctly orientated.
It didn’t stand much chance in the plasma wind tunnel at the DLR German Aerospace Centre in Cologne – as the name suggests, it’s a wind tunnel that uses an electromagnetic field for heating up a gas to the point of turning into plasma, in this case to simulate a device’s trip through Earth’s upper atmosphere.
With temperatures inside the tunnel approaching several thousands of degrees Celsius, the experimentation gave researchers some useful data points to reference against their models and previous studies.
“We observed the behaviour of the equipment at different heat flux set-ups for the plasma wind tunnel in order to derive more information about materials properties and demisability,” says ESA Clean Space engineer Tiago Soares.
“The magnetotorquer reached a complete demise at high heat flux level. We have noted some similarities but also some discrepancies with the prediction models.”