We try to avoid thinking about it, but spacecraft are machines that break down and eventually fail. Some can last for years, others decades, but in the end they’ll be gone forever.
Space agencies do consider how these missions will end, and put plans in place to wrap them up when the time comes. But sometimes they have no choice, and dead spacecraft return to Earth with no way of controlling when and where it’s going to happen.
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It’s fun to think about new projects, but not so much fun to think about how those projects are going to end. Space agencies do what they can to limit the impact of their dead spacecraft, but space is a hostile and unpredictable place. Mechanical problems, micrometeorite impacts, and software failures can cause even fully functional spacecraft to go dark.
For the spacecraft out in deep space, it’s not that huge a problem. One day you’re depending on it for pictures of Earth, or climate data, or a deeper view into the Universe, and the next day that trusty spacecraft is offline, never to be heard from again. Time to launch a replacement.
There are amazing stories of spacecraft brought back from the brink of failure (mental note, I should totally do an episode on that), but there are also examples of spacecraft that just went silent.
In 2009, for example, two satellites actually smashed into each other. The communications satellite Iridium 33 and the already deactivated Russian Cosmos-2251 just collided at a speed of 11 km/s at an altitude of 789 kilometers. Obviously neither satellite survived, and about a quarter of the debris had burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere by 2016.