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A retired NASA spacecraft is hours away from crashing back to Earth

An old piece of NASA equipment is returning to Earth decades after it was launched — and hours away from crashing into the planet’s surface.

The Reuven Ramati High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) was launched into space in 2002, where it spent years studying solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun. It was retired in 2018, after 16 years, and officials say it will finally make it back to Earth on Wednesday.

“The 660-pound spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere at 9:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, April 19 with an uncertainty of +/- 16 hours,” NASA said Monday. “NASA and the Department of Defense will continue to monitor re-entry and update predictions.”

After nearly two decades of operation, RHESSI has improved our understanding of the most violent explosions in the Solar System – solar flares – using its ability to capture high-resolution X-ray images of the event. More: https://t.co/9ToF73tzcb pic.twitter.com/4MYe0gEet0

— Dr. Nikki Fox (@NASAScienceAA) April 17, 2023

Most of RHESSI will “burn up” as it crashes its way through the atmosphere, the agency said, “but some material is expected to survive entry.”

It is unlikely, however, that any of the falling fragments will cause problems for humans on Earth. NASA says the risk of harm is “low — about 1 in 2,467.”

Throughout its tenure, RHESSI recorded more than 100,000 X-ray events and, at the time, was the only observatory that provided imaging spectra of electrons in solar flares. According to NASA, it has “the best angular and spectral resolution of any hard X-ray or gamma-ray instrument flown in space.” The instrument also helped scientists improve measurements of the Sun’s shape.

NASA retired the spacecraft due to communication problems.

It may be possible to see the spacecraft make its final landing.

“As with any re-entry, we hope that visual observations of the fireball will be possible for the very lucky observer,” the researchers said. “Ideally one would have a clear sky, a dark night, and the great fortune of having … the exact moment along the orbital track.”

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