Falling Soon Through a Sky Near You

It's what the New York Times calls "the latest in a parade of spacecraft falling from the sky": the imminent crash of the European Space Agency's Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer satellite (or GOCE).

Somewhat unbelievably, no one has any real idea where it will land—due to its orbit, "almost all places on Earth pass beneath it at some point"—and parts of the satellite, weighing as much as 200 pounds, are expected to survive the long and fiery journey back down to the Earth's surface. That could cause some significant damage.

In fact, nearly 100 tons of space debris will fall from the sky in the year 2013 alone, a slow and steady rain of machines that brings to mind Robert Charles Wilson's scifi novel Axis. In a beautiful line, Wilson writes that "the sky filled with the luminous debris of ancient, incomprehensible machines," an ashen snow drifting down to the planet, forming mechanical drifts across the landscape.

Orbital debris is a growing problem—as anyone who's seen Gravity can attest—but not all of those old, derelict, and broken spacecraft will crash, falling uncontrolled back to Earth. Satellites are normally parked in a graveyard orbit or otherwise "decommissioned," effectively dropped back to the planet using thrusters and some very careful math, steered safely into the sea, far from land (and major cities).

Indeed, a remote region of the South Pacific is colloquially known as a "spacecraft cemetery." As the always-trustworthy Russian news site RT describes it:

The Spacecraft Cemetery is an area of the South Pacific, approximately 3,900 km from the capital of New Zealand, Wellington. It is used to deposit the remains of spacecraft that do not burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, such as the carcass of the Russian Mir space station and waste-filled cargo ships.

The remote location was specially selected for the disposal of spacecraft because of its depth of four km and distance from shipping lanes.

GOCE, of course, will not get the honor of this burial at sea. Where it falls through its fiery break-up is anyone's guess—but don your hardhat and step outside to watch the skies any time from Sunday night, Eastern time, on into Monday morning. [New York Times]

Image: European Space Agency