Cruise ship avoids impact with falling space junk

After decommissioning Europe’s ERS-2 satellite, its debris safely re-entered Earth and fell into the Pacific Ocean without endangering a cruise ship in the area and its passengers.

Aerial view of Island Princess
Aerial view of Island Princess (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Close and timely coordination between the European Space Agency (ESA), the National Hydrographic Office (NHO), and Princess Cruises enabled the cruise ship Island Princess to alter its course accordingly.

Captain Marco Cataldi received a warning from NHO last week that space debris from the ERS-2 satellite could fall into an area of ocean that Island Princess was scheduled to cross en route to Port Luis, Mauritius. Such debris rarely causes damage, but as a precaution, the vessel adopted a different course around Cape Horn, Africa.

A map displaying the boat's location in the ocean as captured by the ERS-2 Satellite.
The course of Island Princess on its world cruise. (MarineTraffic.com)

Cataldi notified the Island Princess’ 2,200 guests about the possibility while assuring them that the risks were low. They were so minimal that passengers weren’t even asked to stay inside the ship. He said that at most, “it will create an elaborate light show at night.”

What is the ERS-2 satellite?

An image of the ERS-2 satellite with another satellite attached to it.
( via European Space Agency)

The ERS or European Remote Sensing 2 satellite offered valuable information about the Earth for 30 years. Because of it, scientists gained more data about the planet’s surfaces, the temperatures of our oceans, the Earth’s ozone layer, and polar ice. It also allowed the monitoring of natural disasters and enabled more timely responses.

Launched in April 1995, it far exceeded its intended 3-year lifespan. In 2011, the ESA began deorbitting ERS-2 to avoid negatively affecting space activities. After 66 deorbiting maneuvers that took several years, it was finally ready to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere this February.

ERS-2 splashes into the northern Pacific Ocean

A diagram illustrating the various stages of space exploration, including the ERS-2 Satellite Debris.

Weighing over 2,000 pounds, the ERS-2 is designed to burn and disintegrate into pieces upon re-entry, minimizing dangers to human life and property. Since re-entry is uncontrolled, it’s hard to predict the trajectory until the final hours. Vast expanses of oceans are usually employed as graveyards for space debris.

Last Wednesday, the ESA announced the safe re-entry of ERS-2 and its fragments, which landed in the Pacific Ocean. “At approximately 18:17 CET (17:17 UTC) on Wednesday, 21 February 2024, ESA’s ERS-2 satellite completed its atmospheric reentry over the North Pacific Ocean. No damage to property has been reported,” the information on its website reads.

The cruise industry is one of many that relies on satellites. It is helpful for ships’ navigation, communication, and internet access.

Last year, several cruise lines rolled out Starlink, Wi-Fi access that uses the LEO satellite, to their fleet.

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