A NASA satellite fell to Earth after 2 decades


After spending 20 years in space, one of NASA’s old satellites which were named as Rossi X-ray Timing Xplorer (RXTE), burned up in the earth’s atmosphere while trying to re-enter into the earth. The satellite was decommissioned in the year of 2012. The instrument was said to spend its entire life searching for black holes as well as neutron stars in X-ray wavelengths. As a result, it was the responsibility of the satellite to delve deeper into these large objects roaming about in the space.

The primary aim of this satellite was to keep a keen eye on these x-ray phenomena with precise, high-resolution timing. This was mentioned by Jean Swank who is an astrophysicist emeritus at the NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Centre which is located at Maryland. He also worked as a mission project scientist until the year of 2010. During the tenure of RXTE, no other satellite could retrieve the data as well as this satellite did.  It was launched in the year of December 1995. It took off from the Cape Canaveral air base in Florida. Initially, the project was named as XTE. However, to give honor to Bruno Rossi who was an MIT astronomer and the initiator of the X-ray astronomy, the project was later on renamed to RXTE. 

Regarding its last work, RXTE sent last data to Earth on Jan 4, 2012, and it was subsequently powered down the next day. However, by this period, the satellite had contributed a lot to a large number of scientific observations. RXTE exceeded its expectations and thereby would leave a legacy and has set a benchmark for the other satellites. This comment was made by the NASA scientists in a recent press release.

As a star bursts out in a supernova death, it can leave traces of vast numbers of packed-together neutrons which are called as a neutron star. These solid objects can sneeze out the mass of the sun into a city size object. The enormous energy of the black holes, as well as the neutron stars, can attract materials from the nearby stars into their orbit which leads to the formation of an accretion disk.

RXTE found out that black holes which are of different masses can produce similar kinds of x-ray lights. However, it has to be kept in mind that their activity differs at time scales proportional to their masses.