A Casualty of the Sun

A Casualty of the Sun

The cyclic increase in solar flare activity has resulted in one major casualty to date — the satellite known as Skylab.

The sudden, intense rise in solar flares caused the earth's atmosphere to heat up, which made it puff out like a balloon into Skylab's orbital path. This in turn had a braking effect on the American satellite. When Skylab slowed down, its orbit began to decay rapidly, and it fell to earth prematurely.

Skylab was the first American space station, launched by NASA on May 14, 1973. Its purpose was to provide an orbiting space laboratory in which astronauts could test human abilities to live and work in outer space. The space laboratory was expected to remain safely in orbit for at least ten years. With increased technical advances available by then, scientists had planned to move the satellite to a safe orbit. However, they had not calculated the effects of increased solar activity.

And so, on July 11, 1979, after orbiting the earth more than 31,000 times, the American space laboratory plummeted to earth in thousands of blazing pieces. Fortunately none of the falling debris caused any injuries or property damage, since most of the fragments fell into the Indian Ocean and a desolate area of southwestern Australia.


From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth