Years ago, Bob Dylan said that "A hard rain's a-gonna fall." Maybe he was alluding to the nuclear peril of the cold war, or perhaps he was predicting the relatively heavy bombardment Earth has recently taken from the heavens. First, the asteroids. Now, satellites.
Tomorrow, the Gravity Field and Steady State Ocean Circulation Observe (or, as its friends call it, GOCE) is heading for the Earth fast, right now less than 105 miles above the surface. The satellite, launched by the European Space Agency in 2009, was always meant to crash into the Earth. It has a very little chance of hitting any populated location, but not zero. After burning up in the atmosphere, pieces of the satellite could still weigh 200 pounds, and be moving very quickly. While scientists are trying to make sure the satellite will miss everything important (besides our very important oceans) they cannot promise that it won't hit anything major. But they really, really believe it won't.
Time's Jeffrey Kruger tells the recent history of satellite crashes:
In 2011, a NASA atmospheric satellite splashed into a desolate patch of the Pacific Ocean; that same year, a Mars-bound Russian probe that never made it out of Earth orbit hit the Pacific too, west of Chile. Ditto the Russian Mir space station in 2001—another Pacific burial, this time near Fiji. See the pattern? The biggest ocean has the greatest chance of taking the most hits—and it does. Of the major satellite crashes, only NASA's Skylab made landfall, scattering parts of itself across the Australian outback in 1979.
Most satellites end their lives by staying put in "graveyard orbits" so high above the Earth that the won't come down for centuries. Although they pose their own problems up there.
So what have we given to whomever inherits this polluted Earth of ours? Satellite rain. But that's very far in the future. Tomorrow, kick back, watch football, and maybe catch some shaky video of a sattelite's death.