(CNN) — A 2,000-pound European satellite was falling gradually into Earth’s atmosphere Sunday night but was still beaming back data to controllers as it neared re-entry, controllers reported.
The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer — a European Space Agency satellite known shorthand as GOCE — was barely a dozen miles above the scientifically recognized edge of space as its orbit decayed, the ESA announced shortly before midnight Sunday (6 p.m. ET). GOCE is expected to nose into the atmosphere and break up sometime before 8 p.m. ET, the agency projected.
“At an altitude of less than 120 km (75 miles), the spacecraft is — against expectations — still functional,” the ESA said. The craft’s “most probable” path for re-entry takes it mainly over the Pacific and the Indian oceans, and controllers have all but ruled out any chance that the spacecraft would come down over Europe, it said.
GOCE’s orbit can be tracked via an ESA website.
The 5-meter (16-foot) satellite was launched in 2009 to map variations in the Earth’s gravity in 3-D, provide ocean circulation patterns and make other measurements. Powered by solar panels and not-your-average lithium-ion battery, it lasted more than three times its expected lifespan before running out of juice on October 21.
In March 2011, the ESA added another role — as the “first seismometer in orbit” — when GOCE detected sound waves from the massive earthquake that struck Japan.