The Union Recorder

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November 21, 2013

OUR SPACE: They all come down

MILLEDGEVILLE — Some weeks it’s launches that make the news. The next it might be reaction wheels (“Oh no,” the loyal Our Space reader exclaims, “not another reaction wheel!”), or it might be space rocks.

This week it seems to be things coming down.

A European research spacecraft made far more headlines with its fiery demise than it ever did with its fantastic discoveries and diligent Earth observations: the GOCE (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Explorer) spacecraft fell back to Earth on Nov. 10, near the Falkland Islands at the tip of South America.

GOCE ran out of fuel several weeks ago. It traveled at a fairly low orbit to begin with, and once the fuel was gone it rapidly succumbed to Earth’s gravitational pull and increasing atmospheric drag. Since nobody could say for sure where and when the actual re-entry would occur some people were a little nervous.

Granted, the odds of a spacecraft falling on your head while you’re in the grocery store parking lot loaded down with bags of food are — literally — astronomically small, but they’re not zero, so if you’re the kind who’s a classic worrywart you probably didn’t get a lot of sleep lately. There are just so many factors involved, but the closer it gets to Earth the better and more accurate the predictions can be.

As it turns out, the final estimates were very close to what actually happened, and the spacecraft broke up near those remote islands. Its few remaining pieces — if indeed any survived the final part of the journey — fell into the ocean, unnoticed (except, perhaps, by the odd sea creature swimming by).

What else came down?

Another Soyuz capsule, on the trip home after a visit to the International Space Station (ISS), carrying a Russian cosmonaut and a European and a US astronaut. Landing with a bone-jarring parachute-assisted impact in the frozen steppe of Kazakhstan the capsule also carried a very special passenger: an Olympic torch that was actually handed over during a spacewalk and will be used in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

After 166 days in space the three space travelers were in good health and good spirits as they were swiftly assisted out of the cramped confines of the capsule and into comfy recliners and covered with thick warm blankets. The celebrated torch was carefully removed and packed away for safekeeping.

And in the “Almost Came Down” category: India’s first Mars-bound spacecraft ran into a bunch of engine troubles. Because the spacecraft was too heavy to go directly to Mars it was designed to make several smaller engine burns to gradually increase its orbit and finally slingshot it off to its destination. Luckily for this New Kid on the Martian Block a solution was devised and the spacecraft is still on target for its long trip.

It may now be over, but check out the GOCE mission at http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/GOCE

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at  our_space2@yahoo.com   

 

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