A lifeless satellite from the European Space Agency the size of a large SUV is slowly falling from orbit, with absolutely no way to pinpoint if it could crash near you. The GOCE, or Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, is expected to crash land between Sunday night and Monday afternoon in whereabouts unknown after the spacecraft ran out gas last month. Meanwhile, Earth continues to rotate with the satellite sinking ever closer to the ground.
The probability of the European Space Agency satellite crashing in your backyard is minuscule, realistically speaking. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning between Sunday night and Monday morning than be struck by the European Space Agency satellite GOCE. The likelihood it will even hit land is only about 30 percent, considering the Earth is 70 percent water. Then again, if it actually did take out your house, would you be able to do anything about it? According to the President of the Space and Technology Policy Group, Marcia S. Smith, governments “are responsible for their own spacecraft,” and if you could somehow prove that a chunk of satellite has crashed somewhere on your property, you could solicit your government to make a claim.
The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office says there probably isn’t much to worry about, considering a majority of the satellite is likely to disintegrate upon re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. According to Heiner Klinkrad, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, only about “20 percent or 200 kilograms (440 pounds) is expected to reach ground, distributed across dozens of fragments, spread over a sizable re-entry ground swath.”
While 400 pounds sounds like a lot, spread out over the entire surface area of Earth, there should be little to be concerned about. For safe measure, however, the United Nations has made clear the legal consequences of an unmanned space object launched into space by a government crash landing on your property. The U.N.’s Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, created in September of 1972, says that if fragments land on your property, you’re fully covered for compensation from the European Space Agency. The convention was ratified by 88 countries.
While the European Space Agency has no clue whether or not this satellite could crash near you, keep in mind that everyday there is space debris and dust hurdling towards earth, but most doesn’t make it through the fiery inferno of a battle that is re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Although the odds are in Earth’s favor in the battle against intergalactic rock tossers, when they do make it through, it’s often of mankind’s own doing. Such a situation happened in 1978, when Russia’s Cosmos 954 Satellite crashed landed in Canada, initially frightening Canadian residents when they learned the satellite had a radioactive energy source. Luckily for Canadians, the element was “vanishingly small” and did not contaminate the ground or surrounding communities. In the end Canada petitioned the Russian government for compensation, and the Russians paid up.
According to the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, it is up to a government to bring charges against the government responsible for the falling space object.
So, if you find yourself in the unlikely circumstance of being a victim of GOCE’s falling debris Sunday night, be sure to notify your government that you’re not only a party privy to the convention’s rulings, but you have defied the odds and managed to get struck by the European Space Agency’s lightning.
By John Amaruso