Huge, out-of-fuel satellite falling to Earth very soon; location TBD

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Heads up! A satellite is expected to fall to Earth sometime Sunday night or Monday morning, and scientists can’t say yet where it will land.

The satellite, known as GOCE, has been circling our planet since 2009, when it was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) to map Earth’s gravity. It weighs 2,425 pounds, and its altitude has been dropping since late October, after it ran out of fuel.

PHOTOS: Amazing images from space


GOCE is a bit bigger than a Volkswagen van, but it won’t be crashing to Earth in one piece. As it continues to fall it will break apart into several pieces, most of which will burn up in our atmosphere. ESA scientists said just 20% of the original mass of the satellite will fall to the ground, in dozens of pieces, over what they called “a sizable reentry ground swath.”

Scientists emphasize that there is no reason to fear getting hit by a satellite fragment. Yes, it may be possible, but it is unlikely.

“Statistically speaking, it is 250,000 times more probable to win the jackpot in the German Lotto than to get hit by a GOCE fragment,” Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, said in a statement.

That being said, no one knows where it will land or exactly when.

As you can see in the photo above, GOCE is an especially slick-looking satellite. In the four years it was orbiting Earth, it made the most detailed map yet of the variations in our planet’s gravity. GOCE data also helped scientists create the first high-resolution map of the boundary between Earth’s crust and its mantle.

The satellite’s mission was supposed to end in August 2011, but its fuel consumption was much lower than expected, so the ESA kept it up in space, lowering its orbit a bit so it could get even more detailed information about small ocean features.

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