Published November 08, 2013
Sometime this weekend, the sky will actually be falling.
A defunct satellite from the European Space Agency the size of a Chevy Suburban is set to plunge to Earth somewhere between Sunday night and Monday afternoon -- and experts say there's no way to precisely determine where it will crash.
Its orbit goes over the poles, and as the planet rotates the satellite whizzes over nearly every point on Earth. But GOCE, or Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, ran out of gas last month and has been steadily sinking towards the Earth.
The satellite had been orbiting at a very low altitude for its mission, just 161 miles above the planet. Indeed, GOCE’s orbit is so low that it experiences drag from the outer edges of Earth's atmosphere, the ESA said.
Where is it now? Thanks to a neat widget built by the satellite-tracking website N2YO.com (see below), you can watch the falling satellite as it courses through the heavens.
Pinpointing where and when hurtling space debris will strike is an imprecise science. To calculate the orbit, N2YO.com runs information from the U.S. Air Force Space Command through a series of algorithms, and overlays it on mapping data from Google.
"The satellite is one of the few satellites in a Polar Orbit. Consequently, it could land almost anywhere," Mark Hopkins, chair of the National Space Society's executive committee told FoxNews.com.
Not that citizens need to take cover. Although the satellite will break into pieces -- between 25 and 45 with the largest as big as 200 pounds, according to The New York Times -- they are most likely to plunge into the ocean.
“It’s rather hard to predict where the spacecraft will re-enter and impact,” Rune Floberghagen, the mission manager for GOCE, told The Times.
GOCE has been orbiting Earth since March 2009 at the lowest altitude of any research satellite. With a sleek, aerodynamic design meant to eliminate drag on the craft from the planet -- it's been called the "Ferrari of space" -- GOCE has mapped variations in Earth’s gravity with extreme detail, creating a model of the planet's "geoid."
The satellite is 17.4 feet long, according to the European Space Agency. A 2014 Chevrolet Suburban is 18.5 feet long, including the bumpers. The slim satellite is only 1/3 the weight of the truck, however.
As of Friday morning, GOCE was at an altitude of roughly 105 miles and was expected to sink by more than 5 miles within the day.
When a NASA satellite fell from orbit two years ago, it plunged into the Pacific. When Russia’s Phobos-Grunt failed last year, it too plunged into the Pacific. One day before GOCE re-enters the thick atmosphere of the planet, ESA will be able to narrow down the exact time and location of the crash.
As far as anyone knows, falling space debris has never injured anyone -- although one woman came dangerously close. Nor has significant property damage been reported. That's because most of the planet is covered in water and there are vast regions of empty land.