A European satellite will soon be falling to Earth, and no one knows quite where it will land. About 25 to 45 fragments of the one-ton spacecraft should survive all the way to the surface, with the largest pieces possibly weighting 200 pounds.
The satellite’s job was mapping Earth’s gravitational field in detail, but that gravity will become the craft’s enemy sometime in the next few days. The spacecraft’s destruction makes it one in a parade of satellites and other objects falling from the sky in so-called “uncontrolled entries.”
However, it is just one ton of about 100 tons of debris that will fall from the sky just this year, reports The New York Times. While scientists can’t predict where the debris will land, they assure there are no known instances of injuries sustained by space debris.
Rune Flogerghagen, the mission manager for the European Space Agency’s Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), explained, “It’s rather hard to predict where the spacecraft will re-enter and impact. Concretely our best engineering prediction is now for a re-entry on Sunday, with a possibility for it slipping into early Monday.”
The European satellite has been falling toward Earth since it ran out of propellant last month. It drops about 2.5 miles per day and still had 113 miles to go as of Wednesday. Space.com notes that this isn’t the first time a falling spacecraft or satellite stirred up media attention and made the public nervous.
The 2011 re-entries of NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) and the German Röntgensatellit ROSAT satellite caused concern, followed by Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars the next year.
Several space groups will follow the GOCE’s descent. The ESA’s Space Debris Office will also issue re-entry predictions and risk assessments as the satellite continues to fall to Earth. It will update its Member States and relevant safety authorities.
[Image by ESA]