European Satellite to Crash to Earth Next Month

  • Oct 23, 2013 4:09pm GMT

From - A European gravity-mapping satellite has run out of fuel and will likely die a fiery death in Earth's atmosphere about two weeks from now, officials say.

The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE for short, exhausted its supply of xenon fuel on Monday (Oct. 21), prompting European Space Agency (ESA) officials to declare its four-year gravity-mapping mission over.

GOCE, which ESA officials dubbed the "Ferrari of space" because of its sleek design, will spiral closer and closer to Earth over the next two weeks, finally burning up sometime in early November.

"While most of the satellite will disintegrate in the atmosphere, some smaller parts are expected to reach Earth’s surface," ESA officials wrote in a mission update today (Oct. 23). "When and where these parts might land cannot yet be predicted, but the affected area will be narrowed down closer to the time of re-entry."

The mission's scientific returns have been substantial, ESA officials say. For example, researchers have used GOCE data to better understand ocean circulation patterns and to construct the first global, high-resolution map of the boundary between Earth's crust and mantle.

"The outcome is fantastic. We have obtained the most accurate gravity data ever available to scientists," Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth Observation Programs, said in a statement. "This alone proves that GOCE was worth the effort — and new scientific results are emerging constantly."

GOCE won't be the first big satellite to fall from space. Chunks of NASA's Skylab space station famously rained down on Australia in 1979, for example, and NASA's defunct Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite slammed into the Pacific Ocean in 2011.

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Image courtesy ESA.