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Update: Look, Up in the Skies…It's an SUV-Sized Satellite Falling to Earth Today!

- Satellite expected to break up into 30-40 pieces- Some pieces are expected to weigh as much as 200 pounds

Image: ESA/D.Ducros

Monday morning update: From the official statement posted online by the European Space Agency, "Close to 01:00 CET on Monday 11 November, ESA’s 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. As expected, the satellite disintegrated in the high atmosphere and no damage to property has been reported."

The sky is falling!  The Sky is falling! — sort of.

Sometime in the next 24 hour hours, a satellite the size of a Chevy Suburban and weighing more than a ton, is about to come crashing down to the Earth. The good news, sometime today we should have a pretty decent idea of where it will hit.

(Image source: ESA/D.Ducros)

GOCE (pronounced "GO-chay"), is the SUV-sized spacecraft launched and operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2009. The sleek, 17-foot-long  satellite has been circling the planet in a low orbit (just under 160 miles above the earth's surface), mapping ocean currents, producing a new, high-resolution map of the earth's crust and mantle, and, for the first time from space, measuring gravity in 3-D using a highly sensitive instrument called a "gradiometer."

In 2011, GOCE actually completed its planned mission but still had fuel remaining. The ESA took the opportunity to continue gathering data from GOCE until October 21, when fuel was finally exhausted and the satellite began its descent.

The New York Times reports that GOCE's mission manager Rune Floberhagen expects the re-entry soon. Floberhagen told the Times,  "a re-entry on Sunday, with a possibility for it slipping into early Monday."

Should you spend the day wearing a helmet and looking at the skies?

When GOCE does finally re-enter the earth's atmosphere, it is expected to break up into 30-40 pieces, some weighing as much as 200 pounds. Yahoo News reports Holger Krag of the ESA's "Space Debris Office" has used a complex computer modeling system that analyzes previous re-entry data and has developed a detailed analysis of the expected events for GOCE's re-entry.

According to Krag, "Typical spacecraft in the one-ton class have 20 percent to 30 percent of their mass surviving the re-entry. You may assume that also GOCE operates in the same range, but there were no exotic findings among the fragments."

You can track GOCE online and see the latest predictions for where and when it could come back to earth. You should also take comfort in the fact that our planet is more than 70% water,


If you want the short course on GOCE, the ESA produced this one-minute video with the very basics.


Based on the latest estimates from the ESA's Space Debris Office, the GOCE satellite will re-enter the atmosphere and come crashing down to earth between 1:30pm  and 7:00pm ET. The location is still anybody's guess. We will update the story as we get more information.

7:00pm ET: It appears that Europe is in the clear and the greatest likelihood of impact could be in the arctic regions or an uninhabited area of Australia. Current estimated time of the impact is within the next hour.


Follow Mike Opelka on Twitter - @stuntbrain

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