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GOCE's re-entry pinpointed with help from Twitter

Posted: November 11, 2013

With a tip from social media and armed with data from a suite of radar and optical tracking sensors, the European Space Agency confirmed Monday its GOCE research satellite fell through the atmosphere and broke apart Sunday night over the South Atlantic Ocean near the Falkland Islands.

Bill Chater posted this image on his Twitter account showing a high-altitude contrail left by GOCE's re-entry. Credit: Bill Chater (@Cheds23)
U.S. Strategic Command, the military branch which oversees space tracking, issued a notice late Sunday announcing the re-entry of GOCE occurred at approximately 7:16 p.m. EST (0016 GMT Monday).

The U.S. military tracks objects in orbit using an array of radars and optical telescopes, both on the ground and in space. The military's Joint Space Operations Center, based at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., uses the surveillance network to make between 380,000 and 420,000 observations each day, according to a Strategic Command fact sheet.

A photo of the re-entry surfaced on Twitter from the Falkland Islands on Monday showing a contrail high in the atmosphere at dusk, and ESA officials verified GOCE was the culprit.

The image was posted by Bill Chater from East Falkland.

"We saw it burn up from the Falklands at about 9.20pm last night," Chater posted to Twitter. "Came from the south breaking up into bits."

Artist's concept of GOCE in orbit. Credit: ESA
The time of Chater's sighting at 9:20 p.m. local time (0020 GMT) closely matches the re-entry prediction issued by Strategic Command.

The $466 million Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Explorer, or GOCE, satellite dropped out of orbit after running out of fuel Oct. 21.

Read our earlier story for more details on GOCE's mission.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.