Europe’s gravity monitoring satellite GOCE has re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere three weeks after running out of fuel with some 250kg of the debris likely reaching the planet’s surface.
The European Space Agency (ESA), operating the scientific satellite, said no damage to property had been reported as the fragments had most likely landed in the ocean.
The satellite came crashing down on Monday 11 November at about 1am CET (12pm GMT), descending across Siberia, the western Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean and Antarctica. Ground tracking stations reported the last contact with the spacecraft at about 10.42 GMT as it passed 75 miles above Antarctica.
As expected, the satellite disintegrated in the high atmosphere with only 25 per cent of the 1,100-kg spacecraft likely having hit the Earth. The South Atlantic Ocean between Antarctica and South America has been named as the most probable landing site.
Prior to the re-entry, ESA’s spokeswoman Jocelyne Landeau-Constantin said the satellite, GOCE, will mostly disintegrate as it comes down and "we will have only a few pieces which could be 90 kilograms at the most."
The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), mapping variations in Earth’s gravity ran out of fuel on 21 October. During a course of the past three weeks, it has been gradually descending, ending its three and a half year long mission.
GOCE’s descend has been closely monitored by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee and ESA’s Space Debris Office.
“The one-tonne GOCE satellite is only a small fraction of the 100–150 tonnes of man-made space objects that re-enter Earth’s atmosphere annually,” said Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office.
“In the 56 years of spaceflight, some 15 000 tonnes of man-made space objects have re-entered the atmosphere without causing a single human injury to date.”
Compared with some of the spacecraft coming back to Earth in the past years, GOCE is still a rather tiny one. In January 2012, Russia's failed 12,700-kg Phobos-Grunt Mars probe returned. In 2011, NASA's 5,900-kg Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite and Germany's 2,177-kg X-ray ROSAT telescope re-entered the atmosphere.