Published November 10, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.