Heads up! 'Space Ferrari' set to fall back to Earth

A European gravity-mapping satellite will soon go out in a blaze of glory, which could be coming to an ocean or field (and hopefully nowhere else) near you.

This sleek satellite is set for a spectacular flame-out. ESA /AOES Medialab

The European Space Agency and gravity are about to make it rain... pieces of a sporty-looking spacecraft all over the atmosphere and perhaps even on the surface of the Earth.

The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE, has been orbiting our planet since March 2009 at a relatively low altitude to map variations in Earth's gravity in great detail. But the satellite, nicknamed the "Ferrari of Space" for its sleek, atmospheric drag-reducing structure, is about to run out of fuel and make a 130-mile descent towards Earth.

The ESA expects that GOCE's mission will end when fuel levels reach "E" in mid-October. The craft itself will conclude in a fiery flourish about three weeks later when it reenters and mostly disintegrates in the atmosphere, but several parts of the craft could reach Earth's surface.

Right now there's no way to tell where such parts could land, but ESA said it will narrow down the affected area closer to reentry. With most of Earth covered by oceans and vast, sparsely populated areas, the odds of getting smacked by space Ferrari debris are pretty slim.

According to the ESA, about 40 tons of man-made space debris reach the ground each year, but you're still at greater risk of having a close, high-speed encounter with a meteorite. Not exactly comforting, but thanks for the tip.

Nonetheless, ESA's Space Debris Office is keeping an eye on GOCE and plans to issue reentry predictions and risk assessments.

Every few years a particularly large or notable piece of decommissioned space stuff seems to fall from orbit -- most recently the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) in 2011 -- so far without any reported injuries.

That's not to say there haven't been space junk scares in the past.

Cosmos 954 , a nuclear-powered Soviet spy satellite, failed to reach a "nuclear-safe orbit" after launch and soon reentered the atmosphere in 1978, spreading radioactive debris over a wide area of northwestern Canada. The USSR eventually paid a few million dollars to cover part of the cleanup. When Skylab burned up over the Indian Ocean and western Australia in 1979, the Australian town of Esperance charged NASA $400 for littering.

 

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