Satellites, once launched, tend not to come back to Earth. Geostationary communications satellites, once they have reached their end-of-life are sent to a ‘graveyard’ orbit a few hundred kilometres above their normal orbits. Other lower-orbiting satellites usually descend to Earth in a safe fireball that burns them up.
But back in 1992 a European Space Agency 3-tonne satellite was placed into a low orbit of 500 kilometres by the Space Shuttle Atlantic, and then retrieved a year later by the Endeavour Shuttle and brought back to Earth. The intention at the time was to refurbish the craft but the mission was cancelled due to lack of funds.
The satellite, called Eureca (European Retrievable Carrier), was designed with a number of scientific missions on board. During its year in space it was bombarded with cosmic rays, extreme temperatures and vibrations and perhaps even microscopic damage.
The satellite has spent the past 16 years as an exhibit at the Lucerne Museum of Transport. Now scientists at Switzerland’s Material Science & Technology Laboratory (EMPA) have borrowed the satellite and started examining the satellite with deeply penetrating X-rays from every angle with a special X-ray unit that is capable of using high-energy radiation in order to produce very high resolution images.
The satellite will be returned to the Lucerne museum in November.