This is exactly what you should expect when you take a Ferrari into space. The European Space Agency’s GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite is expected to run out of fuel in October and then begin its long fall back to Earth.
The GOCE satellite has been dubbed the “Ferrari of space.” In part this is because of an aerodynamic design that minimizes friction caused by low-orbit atmospheric particles, but it also comes with a $450 million price tag. Since 2009, it has been hanging out in low orbit, studying Earth’s gravity field. The satellite is only 160 miles above Earth, which isn’t very high—the International Space Station is almost twice that far. GOCE has produced a detailed and accurate model of Earth’s gravity field, as well as a high-resolution map of the planet’s geology. It was even able to identify the border between Earth’s mantle and its crust.
The satellite was designed to operate for two years, and has exceeded its life expectancy. But what goes up must come down, and ESA predicts that the gas tank will run out in mid-October. GOCE will fall back to Earth a couple weeks after that, though it’s unclear exactly where it will land. Reentry into Earth’s atmosphere will likely cause the device to break apart and disintegrate, though larger chunks may crash into Earth’s surface. ESA officials have said that as it nears re-entry, it will be easier to estimate where it might plunge to Earth so they can provide risk assessments. As of now, they’re not particularly worried about people, property, or cows. Apparently, about 44 tons of man-made space trash falls to earth every year, but officials say we at greater risk of being hit by a meteorite.
This won’t be the first time man-made satellites have fallen back to Earth. Back in 1979, NASA’s first space station, Skylab, had its life cut short by high solar activity, and the chunks that didn’t burn up in the atmosphere rained down on western Australia and the nearby Indian Ocean. In 2001, the Russian MIR space station caused a sonic boom as it fell from the sky near Fiji. And in 2011 NASA’s Upper Atmospheric Research Station plunged into the Pacific—or at least parts of it did.
NASA expects the ISS to remain operation until 2020 at the earliest, and likely through that decade. But whenever its time comes, NASA won’t just let it fall uncontrolled back to Earth—they’ll actually maneuver the station so it plummets into the ocean. Too bad there aren’t any tow trucks in space.