We Asked a NASA Technologist: What Happens to Old Satellites?

Illustration Satellite Orbiting Earth

Old satellites that have run out of fuel or are no longer functioning are pulled down by gravity and may end up on a continent or in the ocean if they don’t burn up upon reentry. To avoid this and make use of these satellites, NASA is working on OSAM-1 (On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing Mission 1), which will have the capability to sustain and upgrade key assets in space. This will allow for more efficient and cost-effective space exploration. Credit: NASA

What happens to old satellites?

Typically, satellites, if they run out of fuel or something happens to it where it’s just not working, it is essentially orbiting around the Earth dead. So what happens eventually is gravity will continuously pull on it and bring it down. If that satellite, upon reentering into the atmosphere does not burn up, sometimes you’ll find pieces of that structure on one of our large continents or in the ocean. We don’t want that to happen.

So if a spacecraft ran out of fuel or has a bad part, it’d be great if we could fix it. That’s why NASA is working on in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing capabilities. OSAM-1 — On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing Mission 1 — is coming to you very soon. There are capabilities and technologies that will allow us to sustain some of our key assets, so that if they have a bad instrument or they want to upgrade, we can do that in space. Essentially, that is going to help NASA explore and create missions that are going to improve our capabilities from the Moon, Mars and beyond.

So, what happens to old satellites? Well, currently they either burn up upon reentry or they remain in space dead. But all that’s going to change with OSAM-1. It’s going to be the game-changer that is going to help them become sustainable and upgradeable for the future.

What happens to old satellites? Currently, they either burn up safely upon reentry into the atmosphere or they remain in space. But NASA is working on new technology that could make spaceflight more sustainable by refueling or upgrading satellites in space, greatly expanding their lifespans. Here’s more about the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) Mission. Credit: NASA

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