Historic NASA Airborne Observations of Reentering Objects

Ed Barker, NASA/Johnson Space Center, Orbital Debris Office
Understanding satellite reentry breakup phenomenology is important to NASA for assessing and mitigating the potential risk to people and property on Earth from surviving space vehicle components. In addition to extensive modeling efforts, NASA has worked with the Department of Defense on at least 10 occasions to observe from air-borne platforms the reentry and breakup of spacecraft and launch vehicle stages. These airborne observations were sometimes also supplemented with ground-based optical and radar observations. The two most recent campaigns occurred in 1998 and 2000 with the re-entries of Ariane 503 and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, respectively. Information derived from these campaigns including the principal breakup altitude, subsequent component explosive events, and debris dispersion characteristics will be presented. Even with the use of sophisticated sensors, the identification of individual components in the debris stream can be very challenging.