GOCE satellite disintegrates harmlessly in fiery fall from space

The European Space Agency's GOCE satellite re-entered Earth's atmosphere this evening, and although the agency allowed for some possibility that up to 25 per cent of the satellite's mass could have reached the surface, it appears to have completely burned up upon re-entry.

GOCE, the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, was launched into orbit by the European Space Agency back in March of 2009, with a planned 20-month-long mission to map out Earth's gravity field and determine Earth's 'geoid' — the exact shape the surface of the planet's oceans would take if you removed the influences of wind and waves.

As is often the case these days with satellite missions, GOCE performed so well that the mission extended far beyond those 20 months to last over four and a half years. Beyond its primary mission, it mapped out ocean currents in incredibly fine detail, and it even became the first seismometer in space when it detected the infrasound signal emitted by the devastating earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan in March 2011.

The ESA recorded this video explaining the mission and its accomplishments:

Normally, when a satellite is going to crash down to Earth, it's fairly easy to determine exactly when and where that will happen. However, that's because most satellites are essentially shaped like boxes with wings, and those solar panel wings are typically among the first things to be ripped away when the satellite enters Earth's atmosphere.

However, GOCE's design, which allows it to safely fly through the upper layers of the atmosphere, makes figuring out when it will make its final plunge a bit more difficult. Nicknamed the 'Ferrari of space', its streamlined form and stabilizing fins have already kept it aloft in the upper atmosphere nearly three weeks after its fuel supply ran out.

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Final projections were that this polar-orbiting satellite would break up and fall to Earth sometime between 5:50 p.m. and 7:50 p.m. Eastern Time (22:50 - 00:50 UTC), and the ESA reported that the likely re-entry path was across the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, while heading towards the south pole.

Tracking websites, such as SatView, kept track of GOCE all day and into this evening, even as the ESA ended their coverage for the night. Some of these sites are still showed the satellite orbiting, even after its window of re-entry closed, but many simply run on projected paths, rather than showing real-time results.

The ESA Earth Observation office made a final announcement about GOCE: "Close to 01:00 CET on Monday 11 November [7:00 p.m. EST Sunday, November 10], 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."

Update: Apparently someone did see GOCE enter the atmosphere. The following Tweet was made by Bill Chater on November 11th:

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