ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A large science satellite that mapped Earth’s gravity likely re-entered the atmosphere where most of it incinerated on Sunday, about three weeks after running out of fuel and beginning to lose altitude, officials said.
Ground tracking stations’ last contact with Europe’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, or GOCE, was at 5:42 p.m. (2242 BST) as it passed 75 miles (121 km) above Antarctica, Heiner Klinkrad, head of the European Space Agency’s space debris office, wrote in a status report posted on the European Space Agency’s website.
The official designation of space is the Karman line, 62 miles (100 km) above Earth.
About 25 percent of the car-sized satellite was expected to have survived re-entry, with debris most likely falling into the ocean, European Space Agency officials said.
“By the time you read this, the spacecraft’s amazing flight will, most likely, have come to an end,” space agency spokesman Daniel Scuka wrote in an update posted around 6:45 p.m.
There was no immediate word on where and when any debris may have landed.
GOCE was launched in 2009 to map variations in Earth’s gravity. Scientists assembled the data into the first detailed global maps of the boundary between the planet’s crust and mantle, among other projects.
The satellite ran out of fuel on October 21 and had been steadily losing altitude since, tugged by Earth’s gravity.
The 1.2-ton (1,100-kg) GOCE satellite is small in comparison to other spacecraft that recently crashed back into the atmosphere.
In January 2012, Russia’s failed 14-ton (12,700-kg) Phobos-Grunt Mars probe returned. In 2011, NASA’s 6.5-ton (5,900-kg) Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite and Germany’s 2.4-ton (2,177-kg) X-ray ROSAT telescope re-entered the atmosphere.
Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Paul Simao