Q&AZ: After orbiting Earth for 17 years, what will happen to the CALIPSO satellite?
In 2006, NASA and France’s National Centre for Space Studies launched a satellite named CALIPSO.
Through KJZZ's Q&AZ reporting project, a listener asked: Now that the satellite’s mission is over after 17 years orbiting Earth, what will happen to it?
Dave Winker was the principal investigator for the CALIPSO mission, where he met professor John Reagan.
They were both working with LiDAR technology, which is similar to radar.
“We’re doing the same thing, but using light,” Winker explained.
CALIPSO used lasers to study climate, weather and air quality.
Eventually Winker said he found himself at NASA, working with Reagan again.
“When we put the CALIPSO proposal together, he was on the science team for CALIPSO also,” he recalled. “He came up with some good ideas on how to do instrument calibrations and other things.”
A 1998 proposal for CALIPSO was accepted. Almost a decade later, it was ‘go time.’
“At launch I was thinking I would be really happy if we got one year of observations,” said Winder.
According to Winker, that’s normal for missions like this. But CALIPSO exceeded expectations by operating for more than a decade. The lengthy timeline of those observations made the collected data especially interesting to climate scientists.
“One of the really interesting things about CALIPSO is that it measures a huge variety of different things,” said Winker.
In different layers of the atmosphere, CALIPSO measured volcanic eruptions and dust blowing from the Sahara. It even tracked the movements of phytoplankton below the ocean’s surface and nutrients flowing to Amazon rainforests.
So now, what’s CALIPSO’s fate?
“Spacecraft engineers are doing some final tests and they’ll shut everything off by the end of the year,” Winker said.
Then, over 24 years, gravity will pull CALIPSO back down.
“It will basically burn up and break up into tiny pieces,” said Winker, “and nothing significant will reach the ground.”
CALIPSO’s journey is over, but Winker said LiDAR still has a bright future as a tool for climate research.
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