SCIENCE
11/08/2013 02:30 pm ET

A Satellite Is Falling To Earth, And No One Knows Where It Will Land

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The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Actually, it's just a defunct satellite.

The European Space Agency's Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE, satellite is falling to Earth.

While the bulk of the one-ton satellite is expected to disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere, fragments of the craft will reach the surface of the planet on Sunday or Monday. The spacecraft will likely break into as many as 45 pieces, the heaviest of which could weigh 200 pounds, before it reaches the surface.

Just where will the pieces land? The agency has no idea.

"It’s rather hard to predict where the spacecraft will re-enter and impact,” Rune Floberghagen, GOCE's mission manager, told The New York Times. "Quite literally GOCE is now nearly flying like an airplane without an engine, with the upper layer of the atmosphere providing aerodynamic stabilization."

Should earthlings be worried? Researchers say they're keeping a close eye on the satellite as it makes its descent over the next few days. (You can track the GOCE satellite yourself at N2YO.com.)

The plummet of the satellite, once called the "Ferrari of Space," marks the end of GOCE's four-year mission to map Earth's gravity. ESA launched the $450-million satellite in 2009 with the aim of tracking variations in Earth's gravitational field over a period of two years. But since the spacecraft burned through its fuel more slowly than anticipated, it was able to stay in low-orbit for two more years, circling the globe every 88 minutes.

"The outcome is fantastic," Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth Observation Programs, said in a written statement in October. "We have obtained the most accurate gravity data ever available to scientists. This alone proves that GOCE was worth the effort – and new scientific results are emerging constantly."

ESA anticipated that the satellite would come crashing back to Earth sometime this year after it ran out of fuel in October.

GOCE is just one of many satellites that have fallen to Earth in recent years.

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