European Space Agency Satellite Falls to Earth

Over the weekend there were reports of a European Space Agency satellite falling to earth and no one knew where it would land. Thankfully when it re-entered the atmosphere it burnt up turning into debris that landed in the South Atlantic, close to the Falkland Islands.

Due to its sleek appearance, it’s been called “the Ferrari of space” but its actual name is the far less imaginative “GOCE”. It’s the first ESA mission satellite that’s ever fallen to earth in over 25 years. The probe’s purpose was to map gravity so perhaps it’s fitting that it plunged through the atmosphere once it ran dry of fuel. The mission was operating at a 224km altitude, which is the lowest of any ESA satellite so it was designed to trust from a booster engine to stay in position. Of course, the xenon fuel wouldn’t last forever, which lead to the satellite’s final journey back to earth.

Experts were worried that around a 20% of the satellite’s mass would return to earth so everyone can be thankful that it burnt up on re-entry. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, who are the global co-ordinators for “space junk” have been tracking the probe. A signal from GOCE was last received on Sunday at 22:42 GMT when it passed 75 miles above Antartica.

“GOCE survived for a few minutes longer than we expected,” ESA’s Space Debris Office said in a statement. “But since re-entries are difficult to predict, this is not very surprising.”

The probe, whose main aim was to map out the variation in gravity’s pull across the Earth, was sculptured and fin-shaped. Due to the shape, it kept a straight line as it dipped into the atmosphere, as ESA’s Holger Krag explained. “This was due to the shape of Goce, which was designed in such a way that it was aerodynamically stabilised.”

Every day at least one piece of space debris re-enters the atmosphere. Most are so small that no one worries about them. Thankfully, worrying was all that happened here, but it could have been worst if a larger part of the one-tonne probe had made its way back to earth.

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