Watch Scientists Destroy Satellite Using 12,000 F Wind Tunnel

Scientists have used a 1200 degree Fahrenheit wind tunnel to simulate a satellite re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Footage of the experiment was released by the European Space Agency (ESA). It shows how the hot gas of the plasma tunnel quickly melts a satellite component, which shines bright as the colorful plasma disintegrates it. Plasma is superheated matter that gets so hot that electrons are separated from atoms. A plasma tunnel is a device that contains and controls plasma for scientific use.

The scientists wanted to see how well the satellite component would disintegrate if it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at high speed.

Plasma tunnel
An animated .gif image shows the plasma tunnel disintegrating the satellite model. Courtesy of ESA/DLR. ESA / DLR

Footage of the test is also available on the ESA's YouTube channel.

Satellites or other orbiting bodies that do not properly break apart in the Earth's atmosphere pose a risk of hitting the ground in populated areas when they return from space.

According to ESA, spacecraft operators have to prove that there is a less than 1 in 10,000 chance of an on-ground casualty happening if their spacecraft were to perform an uncontrolled re-entry from orbit.

The wind tunnel is operated by the German Aerospace Center's Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology.

It reproduces re-entry conditions by heating gas to temperatures up to 7,000 Kelvin, or around 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The gas is then directed down a tunnel at speeds of several kilometers per second where it collides with an ill-fated spacecraft component.

The spacecraft component that was modeled for the plasma tunnel test was a Solar Array Drive Mechanism (SADM), which helps to keep solar wings facing the sun.

"But its bulky nature presents a problem in terms of space debris guidelines," ESA said. So they put it to the test.

A group of German aerospace firms and ESA collaborated to develop the SADM model, use software to model its re-entry, and then make changes to allow it to more easily disintegrate. The plasma tunnel was used to validate the models.

One of the changes made to the SADM model was to swap out screws with other screws that had lower melting points, which ESA said would allow the whole component to start disintegrating earlier.

As well as melting satellite parts, the tunnel can also be used to test the effectiveness of heat shield and flight sensors.

ESA's concept of designing spacecraft and satellites to be destructible on re-entry is called Design for Demise, or D4D.

The issue of spacecraft not properly disintegrating upon returning to Earth was brought to the fore earlier this year with the launch and re-entry of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket.

The rocket had been used to deliver a space station component to orbit in late April. It then became apparent that it was not known when or where the rocket would fall back to Earth, sparking fears it could pose a threat to populated areas.

The roughly 30 meter-long rocket eventually fell into the Indian Ocean on May 8.