With the European Space Agency and USSTRATCOM agreeing on a final reentry time around Midnight UTC, which is about 7pm Eastern U.S., 5pm Denver time, North and South America are increasingly looking like real targets for the 25oo lb spacecraft. The following is a ground track map just published by the Aerospace Corporation showing the estimated final revs of the flight before burnup.
As this post is published, around 5:20pm EDT, the GOCE spacecraft is on the blue track second from the right, flying north to south, approaching the north coast of Australia near Darwin. After crossing Antarctica, it will fly directly over Brazil on a northerly route toward Quebec. On its next (yellow trace) pass, it will fly over western South America, Cuba and the Mid-Atlantic U.S., if it survives that long. It’s possible it may not survive into that pass. ESA considers it possible that it may not survive far beyond the current pass over Antarctica. In that case, it would break up on its way north toward Rio de Janiero, Brazil around 9pm local time, possibly dropping some pieces on the beach there.
North American estimates for reentry favor a later time. In the Aerospace Corp diagram above, they consider the symbol of the GOCE spacecraft shown over western Russia as the beginning of the death plunge. That’s where the ground trace turns from blue to yellow as it drops south toward Borneo and Perth, Australia.
UPDATE: It appears that GOCE has survived this pass and has communicated with the KSAT Troll ground station in Antarctica. This means it is now likely to survive all the way over the North Pole and into the “yellow zone” shown in the diagram above. The most likely break-up spot now appears to be somewhere near the pass over Perth Australia at around 7:45am to 7:50am local time (23:50 UTC).
If the spacecraft survives the perigee shortly after this pass over Australia, it will pass from Tierra del Fuego all the way up South America across Cuba and the eastern U.S. This is quite likely, and it means the vehicle will pass over the Carolina coast moving inland about 7:35pm local time (00:35 UTC). Falling debris over the Atlantic coast is a real possiblity at that time, since GOCE will be in the heat of its death plunge, perhaps at the very end. The path continues overland across Cleveland, Ohio and into Canada. Bloggers RedPill, Freedom1781, ZMalfoy, Ting and Chrissythehyphenated are all under this path. Please let us know if you see anything in the post-sunset hours tonight!
Although it’s unlikely, GOCE may survive the following pass and follow the next yellow trace across the North Pole, across S.E. Asia, Antarctica and back up across North America. On this path, it will traverse the American West, passing over Denver about 7:05pm (26:05 UTC). The final trace, which is unlikely to happen, passes over India (Shalini) and California.
Update: ESA has issued a statement that they believe GOCE has reentered somewhere, but they have no direct evidence where. Meanwhile, other sources are predicting that it is still in the process of reentering, and if so, it is approaching Nepal and central India from the north, passing by Sri Lanka shortly, around 8:10am local time. Next populated stop for GOCE would be the California coast, which it would reach around 8pm local time. That is shown on the map above as the green line on the left, terminating just off Northern California. The Aerospace Corp doesn’t think it will make it beyond that point, but one final U.S. prediction that I’ve seen expects the spacecraft to survive the trip over the North Pole and burn up over Iran. That could be imagined on the map by extending the green trace up and over the pole one last time. That puts the final end-of-life estimate for GOCE, if it made it that far, at 3:59 UTC or almost 11pm U.S. EDT or 7:30am Iran local time.
What do I think happened? No idea. That thing was very unusually shaped and had wings, and it was attitude stabilized until the very end. The moment the momentum wheels stopped working, and it started tumbling, is probably when it broke up. I suspect ESA got no contact with it on the South Pole pass just before it passed over the Falkland Islands and Argentina on its way to the Carolinas, so my crazy-ass guess is that it broke up after that and fell into Bolivia somewhere. Who knows.
USSTRATCOM Debris Update: ESA and the U.S. Strategic Command have issued statements identifying the reentry zone to be a spot in the south Atlantic Ocean near the Falkland Islands. This is based on orbital tracking of the debris. What they did NOT say is that ESA’s optimistic prediction was completely wrong about the satellite safely falling into the south Indian Ocean west of Australia or over Antarctica, which is what they’ve insisted was the case throughout the final hours of the reentry.
They also did NOT say that the debris field extended northward across Argentina, Chile and Bolivia and possibly as far north as Cuba or Florida. This was not something they wanted to publicly draw attention to, preferring to say the word “ocean” as many times as possible.
But the truth is, independent observers, like us here at 4gfc, knew that GOCE was very likely to break up immediately after the plunge through the last perigee between Australia and Antarctica, and that meant the heavy 500 lb chunks would wait until they made it into the Western Hemisphere before hitting something. That meant Falkland Islands and South America at the very least. As it turns out, some heavy chunks probably splashed down within spitting distance of the Falklands, but other debris, possibly heavy debris, rained down on Argentina and Bolivia. Perhaps there will be some camera-phone video that turns up later from near Buenos Aires. As with all satellite reentries, however, even heavy ones, there was never much chance of any real property damage or loss of life. Still, it’s once again worth noticing, that the agencies who would be liable for damage are not completely reliable in telling us exactly where that damage might be.