Tuesday, November 12th 2013 - 08:02 UTC

European satellite plunges into the Atlantic south of the Falkland Islands

European Space Agency's (Esa) Goce satellite has re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, burning up in the process. US tracking data suggests any surviving debris fell into the South Atlantic, just off the tip of South America, south of the Falkland Islands.

Goce, the first Esa mission to make an uncontrolled re-entry in more than 25 years. The gravity mapping probe's plunge was inevitable once it ran out of fuel

 Dubbed the “Ferrari of space” because of its sleek looks, Goce is the first Esa mission to make an uncontrolled re-entry in more than 25 years. The gravity mapping probe's plunge was inevitable once it ran out of fuel.

The mission was operating in an extremely low orbit - at 224km altitude, the lowest of any scientific satellite - and needed to constantly thrust an electric engine to stay aloft, but last month its reserves of xenon fuel were exhausted.

Pre-return modeling had indicated that perhaps a fifth to a quarter of Goce's one-ton mass could have endured the fiery fall through the atmosphere.

Its sophisticated gradiometer - the instrument used to make gravity measurements - incorporated composite materials which were expected to ride out the destructive forces that would ordinarily incinerate traditional components.

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee - the global forum on “space junk” - chose Goce as its special study project for 2013. This meant a large number of tracking and surveillance facilities around the world were activated to monitor the satellite's descent to Earth.

A signal from Goce was last acquired at 22:42 GMT on Sunday as it passed 121km (75 miles) above Antarctica. Data from the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) indicated that re-entry occurred a little over one orbit of the Earth later, with the spacecraft starting to break up at 00:16 GMT on Monday at an altitude of about 80km.

This would have put any debris fall in the South Atlantic just east of Tierra del Fuego.

“Goce survived for a few minutes longer than we expected - but since re-entries are difficult to predict, this is not very surprising,” Holger Krag from Esa's Space Debris Office told BBC News.

Goce's slender, fin-shaped construction, combined with its magnetic attitude-control system, maintained a stable orientation until very late in the descent. Engineers monitoring the last hours of the satellite from Europe's Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, observed Goce to keep a straight-on approach as it dipped deeper and deeper into the atmosphere.

“This was due to the shape of Goce, which was designed in such a way that it was aerodynamically stabilized,” said Dr Krag.

Statistics show that there is typically at least one piece of tracked space “junk” re-entering the Earth's atmosphere every day; with, on average, one intact defunct spacecraft or old rocket body coming back every week.

Esa's last mission to make an uncontrolled re-entry was the magnetosphere explorer Isee-2, which came back in 1987.

The agency does, however, regularly manage controlled re-entries. Its space station freighter, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, can weigh some 13 tons when it comes back to Earth. It has fuel and thrusters to direct its destructive dive towards the vast and uninhabited waters of the Southern Ocean, east of New Zealand.

Goce (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer) was launched in 2009 as part of a series of innovative environmental research satellites. Its super-sensitive gradiometer was used to detect the tiny variations in the pull of gravity across the surface of the Earth.

Its maps have very broad applications. The data is a key reference in civil engineering for relating heights measured at widely separated locations, and for the computer models that need to understand how the oceans move to forecast future changes in climate.

14 comments Feed

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1 brasherboot (#) Nov 12th, 2013 - 10:49 am Report abuse
Hands off the space junk - Argentina ( space troopers) is claiming its theirs.
2 Conqueror (#) Nov 12th, 2013 - 11:14 am Report abuse
@1 ESA aren't very good. It was supposed to “land” somewhere between the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada. What effect do we think a quarter of a ton of incandescent metal would have had? Five miles of total destruction? Never mind. Next time?
3 Rufus (#) Nov 12th, 2013 - 11:54 am Report abuse
@2 Still better than the oldest generation of cruise missiles. The most comedic one had to be the SM-62 Snark. Its guidance systems proved so utterly useless that one of its test flights, which was supposed to be flying a square and ditching off of Florida, finished up being found twenty seven years after it had gone wrong, in Northeastern Brazil.

Not for nothing was the Carribean described as Snark infested waters
4 ChrisR (#) Nov 12th, 2013 - 05:17 pm Report abuse
TimmerTwat will be claiming it fell on the Argentina Atlantic shelf next and want compensation “for the damage”.

The reply would be very simple: HTF can you tell anywhere that Argentina has been damaged by the satellite; it ALL looks the same - crap?
5 Briton (#) Nov 12th, 2013 - 07:08 pm Report abuse
No doubt she will be complaining to the UN
Now that the EU is militarising the south Atlantic with their space weapons..lol
perhaps she can apply to mr camaron for aid to fund her own space project..
6 ChrisR (#) Nov 12th, 2013 - 10:14 pm Report abuse
5 Briton

He would probably give her the money, after all, he gives everybody else our money.
7 Vestige (#) Nov 13th, 2013 - 04:09 pm Report abuse
D'oh so close.
Would have been hilarious.

Condor launch goes awry 2500 killed.
8 Pete Bog (#) Nov 13th, 2013 - 11:09 pm Report abuse
Bring back the ESA tracking station in Stanley
9 Vestige (#) Nov 14th, 2013 - 07:38 pm Report abuse
EU/ESA doesn't want to be associated with whats going on on this islands.
10 Pete Bog (#) Nov 14th, 2013 - 11:46 pm Report abuse
It does, as the EU have just given the Falkland Is lands a grant and praised its democracy and good governance.

If the EU did not want to be associated with the Islands, it would not have given them an EU grant.

Please try to keep up with current affairs, Vestige.
11 Vestige (#) Nov 15th, 2013 - 04:59 pm Report abuse
If the EU did not want to be associated with the Islands, it would not have given them an EU grant.

Just politics. Britain paid off or shook hands with many the dictator, doesn't mean there was any 'want' involved.
12 Pete Bog (#) Nov 16th, 2013 - 08:51 pm Report abuse
Your logic makes no sense.

If the EU did not associate with the Islands they would have withheld money. At the moment they don't 'want' Argentine bio-fuel signified by them stopping its import.#

Or using your logic, does the fact the EU are not importing Argentine bio-fuel mean the EU in fact want it?
13 Vestige (#) Nov 18th, 2013 - 10:01 pm Report abuse
“If the EU did not associate with the Islands they would have withheld money”
-Not true, like I said Britain aided and associated with manys the dictator, Gaddafi for example, paid him money and supplied him with arms and military training officers. Just politics, sometimes you have to choose the lesser evil.
14 Pete Bog (#) Nov 20th, 2013 - 07:36 pm Report abuse
I am not convinced, but there is something in what you say-only the Falkland Islands are linked to the EU under the Lisbon Treaty.
Also the way that the UK's money to the EU has paid for Spain's motorways is politics.

The moronic supply of Argentina's fascists pre 1982 with warships the Argentines never paid for (what's new? Once a thief always a thief), was a prime example of where the UK's 'politics' were arse about face-so your point would be valid there Vestige-also it was politics that prompted the UK to suggest lease-back over the Falklands-I'm so glad that the UK now chooses the Islander's rights over 'politics.'

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