November 13, 2013

Falling Satellites


Scott: A European satellite weighing more than a ton entered the Earth’s atmosphere, broke apart and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But as Tom Hanson shows us, it is actually not as unusual as it sounds.

Tom: It was called the ‘Ferrari of space satellites,’ until it crashed. The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE, was a satellite launched in 2009 by the European Space Agency. The satellite was sent into space to map the Earth’s gravitational fields. But this week, its fuel ran out, and GOCE fell back to Earth.

The car-sized satellite burnt up while entering the Earth’s atmosphere, undoubtedly a relief for scientists at the ESA who had no idea where it was going to land.

But even if GOCE had slammed into the Earth, chances are slim it would’ve hit anything.

Scientist: They estimate that the odds of getting hit by a piece of space debris are about 1 in 1 trillion. To put that in perspective, I think your odds of getting hit by lighting are about 1 in 1.4 million.

Tom: Scientists aren’t able to predict exactly where a satellite will crash because they skip along the outer layers of the atmosphere, kind of like a rock skipping across the surface of a pond.

GOCE’s fiery crash looked something like this video of a European spacecraft re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in 2008. It exploded into thousands of pieces before crashing into the Pacific. And that is where most satellites end up when they run out of fuel. As a matter of fact, over the past few years, a NASA satellite, a Russian space probe and the Mir space station all crashed into the ocean without causing any damage. Scientists say objects fall back to Earth all the time, most of them harmless.

Scientist: Every year, literally dozens of objects return to Earth in similar fashion. This one’s a little unique in that it’s a fairly large spacecraft, as these things go.

Tom: The GOCE mission was considered a success. But in the end, it proved one thing everyone knows: what goes up always comes down.

Tom Hanson, Channel One News.

Scott: Want to know more about the stuff we have left behind in space? Well, check out


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