Uncertainty grows over Russia Mars probe crash site

Jan 13, 2012 by Dmitry Zaks
A rocket carrying the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft at Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome in November
A Zenit-2SB rocket carrying the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft stands at a launch pad of the Russian leased Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome just before its blasted off toward Mars in November 2011. Uncertainty over the location of the impending crash of Russia's failed Mars probe grew Friday, with an official saying it may end up in the Atlantic and not Pacific Ocean as suggested.

Uncertainty about where a doomed Russian Mars probe might crash back to Earth grew Friday when the Roscosmos space agency changed its prediction thousands of miles (kilometres) from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.

Roscosmos said the 13.5-tonne Phobos-Grunt probe would probably begin its fatal descent on Sunday evening Moscow time rather than in the afternoon as initially thought.

This meant that "Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere over Argentina and have its fragments splash down in the Atlantic Ocean," an unnamed space official told the Interfax news agency.

The latest estimate on a Roscosmos graphic showed the $165-million craft splashing down at 8:22 pm (1622 GMT) about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) due south of Buenos Aires -- a spot within geographic proximity of the .

The previous Roscosmos map released on Thursday had shown fragments of the ill-fated craft coming down between the northwestern shores of Madagascar and the east coast of Africa.

"The change in the time and location of the landing ... is based on the diminishing altitude of the vessel's orbit, solar activity and atmospheric conditions," Roscosmos said.

The unmanned vessel -- stuck in orbit since its November 9 launch -- will be one of the largest objects to re-enter the atmosphere since Russia brought down the Soviet-era Mir space station in 2001.

It is loaded with enough toxic fuel to take it to the mysterious Mars moon and is weighed down further by a Chinese satellite it had been due to put in orbit around the Red Planet under a landmark deal with Beijing.

Both Roscosmos and US space officials at NASA have made great efforts to downplay the dangers posed by the crashing probe.

The Russian side predicts that only 20 or 30 segments weighing no more than 200 kilogrammes (440 pounds) combined will survive the fiery re-entry and actually hit the Earth's surface.

The chief NASA scientist on orbital space debris meanwhile dismissed the threat posed by the craft's toxic fuel.

Nicholas Johnson said the Russian craft's fuel tanks are made of aluminium rather than the much tougher titanium metal preferred by US space officials.

"According to Mr. Johnson, aluminium has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth," NASA reported on its website.

But Russia's past inability to locate its own vessels and subsequent admission that it will not be able to steer Phobos-Grunt upon its return has raised some concern about how the descent might unfold.

The complex Roscosmos diagram shows the craft potentially crashing at any point on Earth south of London and north of the southernmost tip of New Zealand.

said it will be keeping both the United Nations "and interested countries on whose territory the Phobos-Grunt probe's fragments might fall" informed with regular updates.

The ambitious project had initially aimed to revive Russia's interplanetary programme and prepare the way for a manned mission to Mars.

But it instantly came to represent one of the more high-profile mishaps in a year littered with unprecedented setbacks in the Russian space programme.

The November accident struck less than three months after an unmanned Progress supply ship bound for the International Station crashed into Siberia.

Russia also lost three navigation satellites as well as an advanced military satellite and a telecommunications satellite in the past year.

Explore further: Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Russia's Mars probe will crash to Earth in January

Dec 16, 2011

A Russian spacecraft bound for a moon of Mars and stuck in Earth's orbit will come crashing back next month, but its toxic fuel and radioactive material on board will pose no danger of contamination, the Russian ...

Mars probe to crash into ocean Sunday: Russia

Jan 11, 2012

Russia's space agency on Wednesday pinpointed the likely trajectory of its stranded Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, predicting it would crash into the Indian Ocean west of Jakarta later this week.

Russia Mars probe considered lost: report

Nov 12, 2011

Efforts to resume contact with a Russian space mission to Mars stuck in Earth orbit after launch have failed and the probe must be considered lost, Interfax news agency reported Saturday.

Recommended for you

Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

9 hours ago

A vast crater discovered in a remote region of Siberia known to locals as "the end of the world" is causing a sensation in Russia, with a group of scientists being sent to investigate.

NASA Mars spacecraft prepare for close comet flyby

10 hours ago

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

Jul 25, 2014

For the first time, Spanish researchers have detected an unknown interaction between microorganisms and salt. When Escherichia coli cells are introduced into a droplet of salt water and is left to dry, b ...

How do we terraform Venus?

Jul 25, 2014

It might be possible to terraform Venus some day, when our technology gets good enough. The challenges for Venus are totally different than for Mars. How will we need to fix Venus?

Biomarkers of the deep

Jul 25, 2014

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Spain is a unique geological site that has fascinated astrobiologists for decades. The Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) in Spain's Río Tinto area is the largest known deposit ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.1 / 5 (10) Jan 13, 2012
The headline, "Uncertainty grows over Russia Mars probe crash site," is absolutely not true, but for being the work product of a headline-editor, a lie.

While the instant was completely unknown, then the whole surface of the earth beneath the inclination is at risk. As the instant time narrows then so does the location.
3 / 5 (4) Jan 13, 2012
"According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth,"

...Wait, ...what ? ...wouldn't that make it prone to melting faster ?
5 / 5 (8) Jan 13, 2012
"According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth,"

...Wait, ...what ? ...wouldn't that make it prone to melting faster ?

Yes, that's the point. The fuel containment vessel will melt on reentry and burn up all the toxic fuel, meaning it won't reach the ground.
4 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2012
In the future, I can foresee space tow trucks on call for circumstances such as this, and still $50 for the initial hookup and $2 for subsequent miles.
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 13, 2012
@TeleK, WooHoo, you've never worked for or called for TowBoat US! That's a better analogy though still distant. You are paying them to surrender their salvage rights, otherwise they own your boat when you accept their tow line. A recreational boater on the ocean can owe thousands of dollars for running out of fuel or going aground.
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 14, 2012
Yet we've spent 1.5 trillion dollars in deficit AND we're hitching rides from these people into LEO for the foreseeable future...brilliant...
not rated yet Jan 15, 2012
Current best estimate.

15 JAN 2012 - 22:16 UTC (plus/minus) 9 hours

0.1 / 5 (35) Jan 15, 2012
"Yet we've spent 1.5 trillion dollars in deficit" - Modernmystic


You have spend 15.3 Trillion dollars in deficits.