Sunday, November 10, 2013

Breaking: Space junk falling to Earth

We've come to the point of space exploitation where these things are rarely mentioned. I don't recall any big buzz when this launched but now that this satellite is about to sort of crash to Earth within the hour it's slightly bigger news. Also too, it's an exceptional unit.

[video at CNN]
The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer -- a European Space Agency satellite known shorthand as GOCE -- was barely a dozen miles above the scientifically recognized edge of space as its orbit decayed, the ESA announced shortly before midnight Sunday (6 p.m. ET). GOCE is expected to nose into the atmosphere and break up sometime before 8 p.m. ET, the agency projected. [...]

"At an altitude of less than 120 km (75 miles), the spacecraft is -- against expectations -- still functional," the ESA said. The craft's "most probable" path for re-entry takes it mainly over the Pacific and the Indian oceans, and controllers have all but ruled out any chance that the spacecraft would come down over Europe, it said. (GOCE's orbit can be tracked via an ESA website.)

The 5-meter (16-foot) satellite was launched in 2009 to map variations in the Earth's gravity in 3-D, provide ocean circulation patterns and make other measurements. Powered by solar panels and not-your-average lithium-ion battery, it lasted more than three times its expected lifespan before running out of juice on October 21.

In March 2011, the ESA added another role -- as the "first seismometer in orbit" -- when GOCE detected sound waves from the massive earthquake that struck Japan.
Good technology will likely evolve from the demise of this old piece of hardware.

According to this guy, this satellite was one of 1071 operational satellites in orbit around the Earth. And those are just a small fraction of the 21K larger inoperational items and 500K smallish bits of space junk orbiting the Earth. I'm too lazy to fact check his numbers but there's no doubt our planet is encircled by some amount of space junk. Maybe some day we'll accumulate enough of it to have a ring, like Saturn. That would be cool.

Meanwhile, I still really miss the toolbag in space.

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