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GOCE satellite falls to its fiery doom in South Atlantic Ocean, experts say

The European Space Agency says its 1.2-ton GOCE gravity-mapping satellite plunged through the atmosphere on Sunday and broke up into bits over the South Atlantic Ocean.

In an online update, ESA said that GOCE re-entered Earth's atmosphere around 7:16 p.m. ET Sunday (0016 GMT Monday). The agency said that assessment was made after consultation with the U.S. Strategic Command, which monitors orbital debris.

The satellite hit the atmosphere over a spot due south of the Falkland Islands, around the coordinates of 60 degrees west and 56 degrees south, ESA said. "This would put the main area over which any possible GOCE remnants fell to the southernmost regions of the Atlantic Ocean," ESA's Daniel Scuka said.

About 500 pounds (250 kilograms) worth of debris was expected to have survived the car-sized satellite's re-entry, but no damage was immediately reported.

GOCE gave up the ghost last month when its fuel ran out, marking the end of a four-year-long scientific mission. Its orbit gradually decayed over the course of the past few weeks, leading to Sunday's uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry. Previous satellite plunges, such as last year's fall of the 14-ton Russia's Phobos-Grunt probe, have sparked alarms about the potential threat from falling debris — but ESA downplayed the potential threat from GOCE because of its significantly smaller mass.

GOCE is an acronym standing for Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer: The satellite was launched in 2009 to trace Earth's gravitational field in unprecedented detail. In 2011, for example, its sophisticated instruments picked up the infrasound waves generated by Japan's earthquake and tsunami. That led ESA to call GOCE the "first seismometer in orbit."

The $450 million satellite's sleek design, produced by a French-Italian venture called Thales Alenia Space, earned it another nickname: the Ferrari of space. Now that space speedster has finally crashed.

Update for 3:15 a.m. ET Nov. 12: Amazingly, a skywatcher named Bill Chater reported seeing GOCE's fiery re-entry from the Falklands — and tweeted a picture of the satellite's final flare-up. "Driving southwards at dusk, it appeared with bright smoke trail and split in two before splitting again into more and going on north," Chater wrote.

More about GOCE:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.