Out-of-fuel European satellite to come crashing down

Oct 18, 2013 by Mariette Le Roux
Undated artists impression of the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite which is planned to lift off from Plesetsk on March 16, 2009.

A satellite monitoring Earth's gravity field since 2009 will run out of fuel "in the coming days" and eventually crash, with little risk to humans, the European Space Agency said Friday.

About 40 to 50 fragments with a combined mass of 250 kilogrammes (550 pounds) are projected to hit our planet within weeks of the GOCE running out of , according to spacecraft operations manager Christoph Steiger.

"We are very close to the end," he told AFP on Friday, when the pressure in the satellite's fuel tank dropped below 2.5 bar—the minimum required for full operation.

Not yet known is when and where the fragments will impact—over the ocean or on land.

The pressure in the orbiter's tank is expected to drop to zero no later than October 26 but the engine will likely stop working before then, said Steiger.

"Right now, it is not possible to predict where it will happen, it could be anywhere. The closer we get to the reentry point, the more precisely we will be able to say.

"Roughly one day before (impact), one can exclude certain regions of the Earth. A few hours before, we will be able to tell with... a few thousand kilometres of precision."

The Gravity Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) was launched into orbit in March 2009 at an altitude of just 260 kilometres (160 miles).

It has stayed aloft thanks to its unusual aerodynamic shape and an ion propulsion system.

GOCE's stock of 41 kg of fuel stood at about 350 grammes on Friday. When it runs out completely, the satellite will start losing altitude, become unstable and eventually de-orbit.

Most of the 5.3-metre-long (17.2-foot) spacecraft will break up at an altitude of about 80 kilometres (50 miles), said Steiger.

But about a quarter of its mass will survive, hitting the surface in a trail of fragments over an area of a few hundred kilometres.

"The risk is very small, but it is not zero," said Fernand Alby, in charge of and space surveillance at France's National Centre of Space Studies (CNES) in Toulouse.

"Per year, it is estimated that about 100 tonnes of manmade space debris is reentering (the atmosphere), out of which between 20 and 40 tonnes survive reentry... and impact somewhere on Earth," Steiger said.

In 50 years of spaceflight, there have been no casualties from manmade space debris reentering, he insisted.

"The risk of getting hit by such a reentering, manmade space debris is 65,000 times lower than getting hit by lighting. It is 1.5 million times lower than being killed in a home accident—falling down the stairs or something like that."

The 350-million-euro ($465-million) mission has lasted twice as long as its initially scheduled 20 months.

Scientists say it has returned reams of data on Earth's and .

GOCE was designed and built before 2008, when international recommendations were adopted that a scientific satellite must be able to execute a controlled reentry, or burn up completely after its mission.

Steiger said a global space debris coordinating committee was monitoring the satellite to predict its point of reentry, "and we are passing on the information to national authorities".

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User comments : 15

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Soylent_Grin
4 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2013
Why don't satellites, especially like this one, carry a "De-Orbit Reserve" of fuel, so they can plant it in the ocean with certainty?
cantdrive85
2.2 / 5 (20) Oct 18, 2013
Why don't satellites, especially like this one, carry a "De-Orbit Reserve" of fuel, so they can plant it in the ocean with certainty?


At the end of the article;
"GOCE was designed and built before 2008, when international recommendations were adopted that a scientific satellite must be able to execute a controlled reentry, or burn up completely after its mission."
There you go, very often it helps to read to whole article.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1.1 / 5 (14) Oct 18, 2013
it is funny that space junkies talk about repurposing massive asteroids by mining them and refining the ore than making it into useful material IN space. yet, when there arlready is useful material in near earth orbit, waiting to be reused , possibly repurposed, and possibly at worst, scrapped and recycling the base components in space----NONE OF THAT is dicusssed. despite the fact that is far LESS energetically intensive than getting to an asteroid and bringing it back to earth, let alone mining and refining its ore in space.

hogwash.
nanotech_republika_pl
1 / 5 (12) Oct 18, 2013
ESA should shoot GOCE to initiate a chain reaction in orbit, while there is an EVA on ISS.
Soylent_Grin
4 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2013
There you go, very often it helps to read to whole article.


Ah, very cool. I didn't know that they put rules in place after 2008. The XP system I'm on during the day chokes on ads and such, and the advertising frame at the bottom of the article cut off the last couple of paragraphs.

Still, since they've known this would happen all along, they could have saved the last bit of primary fuel for a controlled de-orbit. Admittedly, I don't know much about trashing satellites, so maybe it's more complicated than that.
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (3) Oct 18, 2013
yet, when there arlready is useful material in near earth orbit, waiting to be reused , possibly repurposed, and possibly at worst, scrapped and recycling the base components in space----NONE OF THAT is dicusssed.

It's not discussed because it's a stupid idea. Sattelites fly in all kinds of orbits and at all kinds of trajectories/speeds. To maneuver to catch one and then take it somewhere wher it can be repurposed takes a lot of fuel (to get your 'repurposing station' into orbit doubly so).

And by the time a sattelite wears out its components are severely dated. There's much better stuff available by then.
sirchick
1 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2013
I wonder if it would not be cheaper to have it land safely refuel it - upgrade it send it back up rather than completely destroying the components on re-entry from burning up...might save money.

Unless of course the cost to have it land back on earth is even more expensive over the money saved to recycle it ....but I don't know =/
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (13) Oct 18, 2013
"The risk of getting hit by such a reentering, manmade space debris is 65,000 times lower than getting hit by lighting. It is 1.5 million times lower than being killed in a home accident—falling down the stairs or something like that."


Yeah, well, if some lunatic swerves off the street and hits your house (it has happened to some people) they owe you damages.

I've heard of people finding space debris in their back yards which was as large as a 55 gallon drum, which could have easily killed someone, busted through the roof of a home, or totaled an automobile upon impact.

I don't recall anyone being paid damages for this stuff.

I think it was on TWC, where I saw a short about a guy who had some sort of man-made metal plate hit his car, and they never figured out where it came from. The "theory" was that it somehow got carried there by a thunderstorm from an aircraft over 100 miles away. For all anyone knows, it could be a piece of space junk from NASA or ESA. Nobody paid.
Zephir_fan
Oct 18, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (15) Oct 18, 2013
If they can't tell enough about it to even know that it "could" be a piece of space junk, who do you think should be doing the paying?

Now why don't you go sit in the corner and let the adults do the heavy thinking. Idiot-boy I wish Zephir were here so he could tell you how stupid you are.



It was a man-made object that fell out of the sky and smashed his car, idiot.

Someone is at fault, and someone ought to be liable for putting dangerous things over everyone's head.

The guy could as well been in the car, and it could as well have hit and killed him. It was only off by a few feet.

Why is it that idiots like you don't mind such stupid, dangerous things, until it actually kills someone?

Do you let a child play with matches next to an open can of gasoline? No.

Why not? Oh, he might get killed or injured in an explosion, duh.

But then you have foresight there, but couldn't give a damn until someone actually gets killed by space debris.

You're an idiot.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Oct 19, 2013
It's not discussed because it's a stupid idea. And by the time a sattelite wears out its components are severely dated. There's much better stuff available by then.
AA sticks foot in mouth again.

Satellites can be designed to be refueled and this can be done robotically. And in fact this is exactly what is being planned:

"An orbital propellant depot is a cache of propellant that is placed in orbit around Earth or another body to allow spacecraft or the transfer stage of the spacecraft to be fueled in space. Satellite servicing depots would extend the lifetime of satellites that have nearly consumed all of their orbital maneuvering fuel and are likely placed in a geosynchronous orbit .

"Intelsat has recently contracted for an initial demonstration mission to refuel several satellites in geosynchronous orbit, beginning in 2015."

-As I recall I told you about this once before.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Oct 19, 2013
"The NASA Robotic Refueling Mission was launched in 2011 and successfully completed a series of robotically-actuated propellant transfer experiments on the exposed facility platform of the International Space Station in January 2013."

-Why is it only otto bothers to look this stuff up?
Arf_Arf_Arf_Arf_Arf_Arf
1.3 / 5 (16) Oct 19, 2013
Because everybody in the world sucks but you otto. And sometimes even you suck.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (7) Oct 19, 2013
Because everybody in the world sucks but you otto. And sometimes even you suck.
Name one time. I must have evidence or STFU doggie.
EnricM
1 / 5 (11) Oct 20, 2013
[...] that is far LESS energetically intensive .



You argument isn't valid nor sound:
The first issue is that you are comparing things that are completely unrelated in the very scale of the operation: A few tons of a satellite against industrial scale exploitation.

The second issue is that close earth operation requires a comparatively large amount of fuel just to hold your craft in orbit and manoeuvre against the acceleration of our local gravity well. Even if the salvage craft were to be reusable and operated from the ISS or similar.

In any case: Both things aren't mutually related.
Humpty
1 / 5 (13) Oct 21, 2013
Soylent_Grin - Use Add Blocker Plus and Element Hiding Helper for Add Block Plus....

Retard.