GOCE Satellite Re-enters Atmosphere, Mostly Disintegrates, And Sinks Into The Atlantic Ocean

By Gabrielle Jonas on November 12, 2013 12:41 PM EST

Satellite Re-Enters The Atmosphere Above The Falkland Islands
A driver at dusk captured this image of the GOCE satellite's return to earth after a four-year mission. (Photo: Bill Chater)

Bill Chater, driving southwards at dusk in the Falklands at dusk Monday, saw a European Space Agency satellite as it re-entered the atmosphere. "It appeared with bright smoke trail and split in two before splitting again into more and going north," he posted on Twitter, along with the photograph he took above. He captured the satellite's image right after it crossed the atmosphere at 01:16 CET (Central European Time, six hours ahead of Eastern Standard time) over the South Atlantic Ocean. The image shows the satellite at about 80 kilometers high (49.7 miles), just as it was disintegrating from its impact with the earth's atmosphere.  Yet, still, about 25 percent of the satellite's fragments reached earth's surface over the southernmost regions of the South Atlantic, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Space Debris Office said Monday, before sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, ESA said.

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The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite reentered Earth's atmosphere on a descending orbit pass that extended across Siberia, the western Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean and Antarctica. It almost immediately disintegrated at about 60 degrees west and 56 degrees south, near the Falkland Islands.

"The one-ton GOCE satellite is only a small fraction of the 100 to 150 tons of man-made space objects that reenter Earth's atmosphere annually," Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA's Space Debris Office, said. "In the 56 years of spaceflight, some 15 thousand tons of man-made space objects have reentered the atmosphere without causing a single human injury to date."

The satellite carried the first gradiometer into space. The instrument mapped variations in Earth's gravity in 3D for almost four years, allowing it to generate the first global high-resolution map of the "Moho," the boundary between Earth's crust and mantle.

The satellite's mission came to a natural end in late October, when it ran out of fuel. ESA had been remotely lowering the satellite over the past three weeks. GOCE's lowest orbit of any research satellite, under 260 kilometers (161.5 miles), sustained by an ion engine, allowed it exquisite resolution of smaller ocean features such as eddy currents, and other ocean topography and circulation patterns. GOCE has mapped variations in Earth's gravity, as well as air density and wind speeds in our upper atmosphere.

Most of ESA's member countries belong to the European Union, but it also has a cooperation agreement with Canada.  

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