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Out of fuel GOCE satellite to crash-land on Earth Sunday afternoon

  • GOCE satellite.jpg

    Scientists inspect the solar panels on the GOCE satellite during final testing at ESA-ESTEC in 2008. (ESA)

  • esa_ESOC_MCR_darmstadt.jpg

    Scientists at ESA's Space Debris Office are closely monitoring the re-entry of the GOCE satellite. (ESA/J. Mai)

  • GOCE satellite in orbit.jpg

    The GOCE satellite's orbit is so low that it experiences drag from the outer edges of Earth's atmosphere. (ESA /AOES Medialab)

  • GOCE satellite 3.jpg

    An artist's impression of the GOCE satellite in orbit. In order to precisely measure the planet's gravity, the sleek, 16-foot long satellite is designed to orbit at a very low altitude -- just 160 miles above the Earth. (AOES Medialab)

  • GOCE Satellite 1.jpg

    A precise model of Earth's 'geoid' -- essentially a virtual surface map of where water does not flow from one point to another -- is crucial for deriving accurate measurements of ocean circulation and sea-level change. In this map from GOCE, colors represent deviations in height (100 m to +100 m) from an ideal geoid. (ESA/HPF/DLR)

A 2,000-pound European satellite has run out of fuel and will plunge back to Earth sometime between 5:30 P.M. EST and 7:30 P.M., a spokesman for Europe's Space Debris Office told FoxNews.com.

As of 3:00 P.M. it was buzzing Africa's Western shores preparing to cross the Atlantic Ocean en route to Greenland. Its next orbit will bring it closer to North America's East Coast. Where precisely it will crash remains up in the air.

GOCE Facts and Figures

Full name: Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer

Launched: March 17, 2009

Launch site: Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia

Mission control: European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany

Number of instruments: 3

Mission cost: $470 million (including launcher and operations)

Mass: 2,425 pounds

Size: 17.4 feet long, about 3 feet body diameter

Propulsion tank: 88 pounds of xenon

Learn more

As the whizzing GOCE -- or Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer -- descends, scientists are carefully monitoring it to determine the landing site and ensure public safety.

"We've seen the spacecraft again over Kiruna" in Sweden, wrote Christoph Steiger, GOCE Operations Manager for ESA, on the agency's Rocket Science blog. "GOCE is still doing great."

With each orbit, it descends from a current altitude of under 78 miles by about 0.6 miles per hour.

"With a very high probability, a re-entry over Europe can be excluded," wrote Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA's Space Debris Office, Sunday morning. Klinkrad, who is closely monitoring the GOCE re-entry, cited radar measurements and satellite-to-satellite tracking.

“The most probable impact ground swath runs over oceans and polar regions, as well as uninhabited areas of Australia,” he said.

WHERE IS IT NOW? Track the GOCE satellite here

GOCE ran out of gas last month and has been steadily sinking towards the Earth. As the planet rotates, the satellite whizzes over nearly every point between the poles. Experts expect it to plunge harmlessly into the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet's surface.

But not everyone is convinced of that. On Saturday, odds makers with British gaming company Ladbrokes gave FoxNews.com 6 to 4 odds it would crash-land in North or South America.

'[If] you could prove a piece of GOCE hit your Honda, you could go to your government to make a claim.'

- Marcia S. Smith, president of the Space and Technology Policy Group

Should the satellite end up in your backyard, experts said the government responsible for launching it would be responsible for any damage -- that would be Russia, in this case.

“Basically, governments are responsible for their own spacecraft,” explained Marcia S. Smith, president of the Space and Technology Policy Group in Arlington, Va. “[If] you could prove a piece of GOCE hit your Honda, you could go to your government to make a claim,” she told FoxNews.com.

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, creating a model of the planet's "geoid."

INTERACTIVE: Larger module to track Europe's falling, 2,000-pound satellite

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 far as anyone knows, falling space debris has never injured anyone -- although one woman came dangerously close. Nor has significant property damage been reported.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.