A decommissioned NASA spacecraft falls to Earth over the Sahara

NASA’s retired RHESSI spacecraft disintegrated in the atmosphere on March 20 at 021 UTC over the Sahara desert, almost 21 years after it was launched.

From 2002 until its decommissioning in 2018, RHESSI (Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager) observed solar flares from its low-Earth orbit, helping scientists understand the underlying physics of how those powerful bursts of energy are created.

The US Department of Defense confirmed that the 300-kilo spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere over the Sahara desert region, approximately 21.3 degrees north latitude and 26 degrees east longitude, in the Sudan area. NASA expected that most of the spacecraft would burn up while traveling through the atmosphere, but that some components would survive re-entry.

The spacecraft was launched aboard an Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL rocket with a mission to image the high-energy electrons that carry much of the energy released in solar flares. He accomplished this with his only instrument, an imaging spectrometer, which recorded X-rays and gamma rays from the sun. Prior to RHESSI, neither gamma-ray images nor high-energy X-ray images of solar flares had been taken.

The RHESSI data provided vital clues about solar flares and their associated coronal mass ejections. These events release the energy equivalent to billions of megatons of TNT into the solar atmosphere in a matter of minutes and can have effects on Earth, including disrupting electrical systems. Understanding them has proven challenging, according to NASA.

RHESSI recorded more than 100,000 X-ray events, allowing scientists to study the energetic particles in solar flares. The imager helped the researchers determine the frequency, location, and motion of the particles, which helped them understand where the particles were being accelerated.

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Over the years, RHESSI has documented the enormous variety in the size of solar flares, from tiny nanoflares to massive superflares tens of thousands of times larger and explosive. RHESSI even made discoveries unrelated to flares, such as improving measurements of the Sun’s shape and showing that terrestrial gamma-ray flares (bursts of gamma rays emitted from high in Earth’s atmosphere during thunderstorms) are more common than previously thought.

After 16 years of operations, NASA dismantled RHESSI due to communication difficulties with the spacecraft.

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