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GOCE mission comes to a fiery end


November 11, 2013

GOCE entered the Earth's atmosphere after its orbit naturally decayed (Image: ESA)

GOCE entered the Earth's atmosphere after its orbit naturally decayed (Image: ESA)

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This morning, at about 1:00 am CET, ESA’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite reentered the atmosphere and burned up somewhere along its orbital path extending from Siberia, across the western Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean, and to Antarctica. According to the space agency, it disintegrated in the upper atmosphere and though some debris may have reached the surface, no damage was reported.

Launched in March 2009 from Russian’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, GOCE’s mission was to carry out the most detailed survey yet of the Earth’s gravitational field, within one-millionth of a gravity. The octagonal 1,100-kg (2,425-lb) satellite, nicknamed the "Ferrari of space," provided new insights into the Earth’s structure and the ocean’s circulation, as well as the creation of a map of the "geoid," which is the shape of an ideal global ocean as it would appear under only the influence of rotation and gravity, and not tides and wind.

In order to carry out these measurements, GOCE was placed in an orbit of 255 km (158 miles) to 224 km (139 miles). At this altitude, there is enough of the Earth’s atmosphere present to cause considerable drag, so the unmanned spacecraft was somewhat streamlined, and equipped with winglets and an ion engine to help it maintain orbit.

On October 2, GOCE’s engine ran out of xenon fuel, its orbit began to naturally decay, and it lost about 1.5 km (1 mile) of altitude per day. ESA’s Space Debris Office and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee monitored the spacecraft’s progress and continued to update its estimated time of reentry. On November 10 at about 11:50 pm, it was tracked by the Antarctic Troll station at an altitude of 120 km (75 miles) and ESA reported that the craft was, to the agency’s surprise, still functional. Then, at about 1:00 am, communications were lost as it made its final plunge into the atmosphere.

"The one-tonne GOCE satellite is only a small fraction of the 100 – 150 tonnes of man-made space objects that reenter Earth’s atmosphere annually," says Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office. "In the 56 years of spaceflight, some 15,000 tonnes of man-made space objects have reentered the atmosphere without causing a single human injury to date."

Source: ESA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

And one day an airplane will lose control and kill somebody on the ground. Yeah, it happens very infrequently, but that is the cost of living in a modern society. Yes we could have stayed out of space, or out of the air, or never went to sea, I guess we could have stayed in our caves and never had to worry about a microscopic (1:10,000,000) chance of being killed by space junk.

Mike Kling

So, "In the 56 years of space flight, some 15,000 tonnes of man-made space objects have re-entered the atmosphere without causing a single human injury to date."

Yes, it's a long shot, but it's still something of a lottery and, one day, sooner or later, some poor sod or village or even city is going to get "the jackpot".

Then what? Are they just going to shrug and apologise?

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