Satellite Will Fall To Earth Sunday Night: Parts Will Land Somewhere On The Planet

By Gabrielle Jonas on November 9, 2013 12:29 AM EST

Satellite, Mission Completed, About to Reenter The Atmosphere
GOCE orbit is so low that it experiences drag from the outer edges of Earth's atmosphere. (Photo: ESA /AOES Medialab)

A satellite that has run out of fuel will be reentering the earth's atmosphere the night between Sunday and Monday, the European Space Agency (ESA) says. The agency, comprised mostly of European Union countries, said some pieces of the satellite will probably hit the earth's surface, though most of the satellite will disintegrate in the atmosphere upon rentry.

Monitoring the descent is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, as well as the ESA's Space Debris Office. ESA can't predict where the satellite will hit, but hopes to offer up an estimate closer to reentry time based on spacecraft orientation, messages from the altitude control system, as well as solar and geomagnetic activity. ESA expects break-up of the spacecraft to occur at an approximately 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) altitude.

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The sattelite, called the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) had been mapping variations in Earth's gravity for four years, and its gradiometer - the sensitive instrument measuring gravity in 3D - was the first in space. Scientists have also used GOCE's data to create the first global high-resolution map of the Moho, the boundary between Earth's crust and mantle located 8 kilometers (5 miles) under  the oceans and 32 kilometers (20 miles) under the continents. The velocity of seismic waves suddenly changes when they cross the Moho.  

Since March 2009, GOCE has orbited earth at the lowest altitude of any research satellite, according to ESA. In August 2012, the European Space Agency began to lower it even more; from about 255 kilometers (158.4 miles) to 224 kilometers (139.2 miles). The lower orbit increased the accuracy and resolution of GOCE's measurements of smaller ocean features such as eddy currents, and provided detailed images of dynamic ocean topography and circulation patterns.

"The outcome is fantastic," said Volker Liebig, ESA's Director of Earth Observation Programmes. "We have obtained the most accurate gravity data ever available to scientists." Case in point: GOCE became the first seismometer in orbit when it detected sound waves from the 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the east coast of Japan in March 2011. That quake -- one of the largest in recorded history -- triggered a 23-foot tsunami that wrecked horrible havoc on Japan's coast.

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