Safe skies on satellite's return

18 January 2012

It didn’t happen - but it might have: the Network Management Directorate was on stand-by for the possible uncontrolled re-entry of the Russian satellite, Phobos Grunt, into Europe’s busy airspace.

Phobos Grunt, a satellite aiming to collect soil samples from Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, failed to leave earth orbit after its launch on 9 November. Russia’s space agency, Roskosmos, announced that it was expected to fall somewhere on earth between Saturday and Monday, 14 - 16 January 2012.

But they could not predict when - neither date nor time - or where this re-entry would happen as it was affected by many changing factors, such as solar weather and the spacecraft’s orientation.

On Sunday, the middle of the re-entry window, the Network Management Operations Centre received a copy of an international NOTAM from the Russian authorities, requesting European States to close their airspace for a two-hour period.

The Directorate Network Management (NM), on alert, following the evolution of this event and reflecting on the possible impact of the satellite’s uncontrolled re-entry, launched a coordination process with a number of States which were considering closing their airspace.

At the teleconference convened by the Network Manager at 16.00UTC for Airspace Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and Aircraft Operators, the response to this Russian request was considered and the latest information, including access to a website for tracking the satellite in real time, provided.

A number of ANSPs issued a NOTAM warning operators of the potential hazard but, given the uncertainty as to the area of possible re-entry, no further action was proposed. One thing was certain: the Network Manager was there, keeping a close watch on the situation and ready to take immediate action if events warranted it.

Some possible knee-jerk reactions were avoided: aircraft were not grounded in anticipation - a hugely costly exercise - and nor was any airspace closed. As it happened, the satellite landed in the Pacific Ocean, some distance away from the Chilean coast.