Monday, 11 November 2013

Alas, poor GOCE, I knew him well...

click map to enlarge

Last night just after 0h UT, GOCE, ESA's Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer, died an heroic death, plunging into the atmosphere while passing over the ice cold wastes of Antarctica, within minutes of passing over the Falkland islands.

ESA reported the decay time as "close to 01:00 CET on Monday 11 November" (= close to 00:00 UT, Nov 10-11).

USSTRATCOM gives a final TIP placing decay at 11 Nov 00:16 UTC +/- 1 m near 56 S 60 W.

My initial last pre-decay forecast, made in a haste late last evening after returning from a full day surveying in the field (later more on that...), was too early.

This was before the final few orbits for GOCE were published, and before I learned from Alan Pickup of a secret setting in SatAna and SatEvo that makes it possible to tweak details that are important in the last few orbits at very low altitude. My tweet at that time:

As this window was including a pass over Australia, I also tweeted:

ESA however next reported having received telemetry from a GOCE pass at 22:42 UT from Troll station on Antarctica, making clear GOCE was still alive and functioning while only just above 110 km altitude!

So my 22:10 UT forecast was wrong. We now know it was wrong by an hour two hours, actually.

Alan Pickup mailed me around that time about some 'hidden' experimental options in SatAna and SatEvo that take into account spacecraft dimensions and some dimension-related effects that are significant at very low altitudes only.

Together with the addition of two more orbital updates that have since appeared, I have therefore re-done the exercise, as an "aftercast".

With solar flux at 154, a 0.3 day tle arc (the last 5 available orbit updates) processed in SatAna and the result then fed into Satevo, and setting the length of GOCE at 5.0, I get re-entry at:

11 Nov 00:13 UT +/- 14 m
69 S, 52 W

This is only 3 minutes from the time given by USSTRATCOM.

In the map on the top of this post, the blue dot gives the USSTRATCOM position, the red dot and red line give the SatAna + SatEvo nominal  prediction and window.

Below is the SatEvo result in 3D, looking towards the south polar region:

I am rather surprised about how well (after tweaking some internal settings) the final SatEvo result compares to USSTRATCOM's final TIP. Kudo's to Alan who wrote the software! (of course, and Alan agrees, the near-perfect match can be a lucky coincidence).

The diagram above shows how quickly GOCE dropped in the end. The last available orbital elements from an epoch about an hour before reentry, are for a perigee altitude of only 110 km! A day earlier the perigee was still at 150 km altitude.

One of the most amazing things about the re-entry of GOCE is that the spacecraft retained its drag-reducing attitude right up to the end. The designers of the spacecraft deserve some serious kudo's for that.

Of all the ways a spacecraft can go, GOCE died gracefully and heroically!  GOCE, clutching on to life to the bitter end, victim of the same forces that it helped map in so much detail. Now let us mourn our brave little spacecraft...

(17 Mar 2009 - 11 Nov 2013)
(here imaged 1.5 months before it's re-entry)

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