Gravity-mapping satellite falls to Earth: space agency

ninemsn staff
12:21pm November 11, 2013
Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite (ESA)
Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite (ESA)

A falling satellite is believed to have finally returned to Earth, reports the European Space Agency.

The Gravity field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite made its last communication pass at approximately 10:40 AEST and is believed to have burned up as it entered Earth's atmosphere shortly after.

"With the last pass, we're done!" said the ESA on its website.

"By the time you read this, the spacecraft's amazing flight will, most likely, have come to an end," the agency wrote.

Satellite-watchers kept a keen eye on GOCE in the hours leading up to its descent as the ESA could not accurately predict where or when it fall.

Though most of the 1,100-kilogram was tipped to burn up upon re-entry, it was believed some larger fragments would tumble down to Earth.

However, the ESA maintained the statistical risk of a human being struck by falling debris was low.

ESA spacecraft operations manager Christoph Steiger had said a person was 65,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be hit by the falling satellite debris.

The head of ESA's Space Debris Office, Professor Heiner Klinkrad, offered some bonus reassurance by adding that the chances of winning the German Lotto are 250,000 times greater than of being hit by a fragment.

The 5.3-metre-long, octagonal-shaped GOCE was launched in March 2009 to map variations in Earth's gravity using its "gradiometer", a highly sensitive instrument that measured gravity in 3D.

GOCE orbited Earth at an altitude as low as 224 kilometres, the lowest of any research satellite. Its measurements will be used for projects such as tracking ocean circulation and sea-level changes.

The end of GOCE's mission was officially declared on October 21, long after the 20 months it was initially planned to last, when its fuel tank ran out of xenon.

Source: European Space Agency

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