Spacecraft Down: Gravity Probe Suffers Fiery Death
This was the view from the International Space Station as the European Automated Transfer Vehicle "Albert Einstein" (ATV-4) undocked and began five days of orbital maneuvers before reentry on Nov. 2. The unmanned cargo vehicle had been docked to the space station for five months after delivering seven tons of food, supplies and equipment to the orbiting outpost in June. Filled with trash and unwanted equipment, the ATV became a high-tech waste disposal system on Oct. 28 as it began its reentry procedure. These are some of the spectacular views as seen by space station astronauts as the ATV slammed into the Earth's atmosphere.
The descending ATV-4 slowly approaching its reentry demise against the backdrop of Earth -- two commercial jetliners and their contrails can be seen.
From the space station astronauts perspective, the ATV can be seen interacting with the Earth's atmosphere some 62 miles (100 kilometers) directly below. Pieces of the ATV are ripped away by extreme stresses and begin to burn up.
The main mass of the ATV burns brightly during reentry over an unpopulated region of the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 2.
Resembling a meteor, the main mass of the ATV succumbs to the extreme heating and dynamic stresses as it tumbles through the atmosphere.
The remaining mass of the ATV breaks up, scattering pieces as the spacecraft lights up the skies over the Pacfic Ocean.
The day has finally come.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed that, at around 1 a.m. Central European Time (7 p.m. EST), the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite succumbed to gravity and the drag of our planet’s upper atmosphere. The exact location where the satellite reentered is currently unknown, but “the satellite disintegrated in the high atmosphere and no damage to property has been reported,” ESA reported in a news release.
When tracking stations lost radio contact with the gravity probe, GOCE was on “a descending orbit pass that extended across Siberia, the western Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean and Antarctica,” writes the agency.
There have been no reported sightings of the reentering spacecraft.
GOCE was launched in March 2009 to take unprecedented measurements of our planet’s gravitational field (or ‘geoid’) and quickly become an orbiting celebrity due to its sleek, aerodynamic design. The highly successful mission maintained its low, 260 kilometer (160 mile) orbit through the use of an innovative ion drive that allowed GOCE to overcome the persistent drag of the thin atmosphere at that altitude.
However, when the spacecraft ran out of xenon fuel on Oct. 21, its fate was sealed; the only direction it was headed was down.
The vast majority of the 1100 kg (2425 lb) spacecraft will have vaporized in the hellish reentry, but it’s thought that around 25 percent, or 275 kg (606 lb), of its mass made it to the ground. As the majority of the Earth GOCE was descending over is ocean, it’s most likely that any surviving components of the spacecraft’s bulk will have had a watery grave.
Ever cautious about avoiding any concern about chunks of ex-spacecraft falling from the sky, however, the Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office was crystal clear about the odds of GOCE causing any damage, injury or death should a piece of the spacecraft make Earth-fall. “The one-tonne GOCE satellite is only a small fraction of the 100–150 tonnes of man-made space objects that reenter Earth’s atmosphere annually,” said Heiner Klinkrad. “In the 56 years of spaceflight, some 15 000 tonnes of man-made space objects have reentered the atmosphere without causing a single human injury to date.”
And so far, it seems, this particular reentry has passed without incident.
Image credit: ESA