A large science satellite that has been mapping the world’s gravitational field and ocean circulation has fallen to Earth, but we don’t know exactly where and when any debris may have landed.
The last contact by ground tracking stations with Europe’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer – GOCE – was late afternoon on Sunday Central European Time as it passed above Antarctica, according to the website of the European Space Agency.
About 25 percent of the car-sized satellite was expected to have survived re-entry, with debris most likely falling into the South Atlantic, European Space Agency officials said.
The satellite has been in a low-Earth orbit Since 2009. It ran out of the xenon gas fuel used by its booster rockets to keep it in space on October 21 and had been steadily losing altitude since, ironically tugged by Earth’s gravity.
“Ferrari of space”
The 1.2-ton (1,100-kg) satellite – nicknamed the “Ferrari of space” because of its sleek looks – was small in comparison to other spacecraft that recently crashed back into the atmosphere.
In January 2012, Russia’s failed 14-ton (12,700-kg) Phobos-Grunt Mars probe returned. In 2011, NASA’s 6.5-ton (5,900-kg) Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite and Germany’s 2.4-ton (2,177-kg) X-ray ROSAT telescope re-entered the atmosphere.
“In total since Sputnik was launched about 15,000 tons have returned from space,” the ESA’s Head of Space Debris, Heiner Klinkrad said, adding “typically between 10 and 40 percent of the initial mass survives such a re-entry. Velocity upon impact is between 200 and 300 hundred kilometres an hour, which is a speed that you can achieve on German motorways with a good-sized car.”
This may be one of the last crashes of its type, as an international agreement now means satellites must be directional on re-entry to allow them to be crashed harmlessly into the ocean.
However GOCE’s fall pales in comparison with the tens of thousands of tonnes of meteorites that land on Earth every year.
In other space news
A Soyuz capsule carried an International Space Station crew of three back to Earth on Monday along with an Olympic torch that was displayed in open space as part of Russia’s preparations for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
Russia’s Fyodor Yurchikhin beamed as he held up the silver-and-grey torch alongside American Karen Nyberg and Italian Luca Parmitano on the Kazakh steppe after returning from the International Space Station after a 166-day mission.
The torch was unlit throughout the space voyage, for safety reasons.
Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky took it with them on a spacewalk on Saturday, posing outside the orbiting station with the first Olympic torch taken into the vacuum of space.