The Russian Phobos-Grunt space probe has really had a rough run of things. The craft was originally intended to land on the Martian moon Phobos and return a soil sample by 2014. Instead, Phobos-Grunt has been stuck in orbit since it was launched in early November. Today, the probe made an uncontrolled re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean just before 1:00 P.M. E.S.T..
After reaching orbit atop a Zenit rocket on November 8, Phobos-Grunt was supposed to fire its engines sending it on a course to Mars. However, the Russian space agency was not able to contact the craft. Over the next two weeks, officials scrambled to restore communication with the probe. The Russian space agency hoped the mission could be salvaged before November 21, afterwhich the orbits of Earth and Mars would make reaching the red planet impossible. Their attempts were unsuccessful, though brief contact was established with the probe after the critical date.
The probe weighed a whopping 14.5 tons when it began its doomed voyage back to Earth, with about half of that being a payload of toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. However, Russian officials were confident that re-entry would ignite the hydrzine high above the Earth and destroy the probe. While it was already extremely unlikely that any parts of the probe would survive, this dramatic end all but ensured the craft’s total destruction.
The head of the Russian space agency Vladimir Popovkin downplayed concerns that the probe posed a threat in an interview the Russian news agency Ria Novosti. The exchange is quoted by Space.com:
“There are 7.5 metric tons of fuel in the aluminum tanks on board. We have no doubts that they will explode [and destroy the probe] upon re-entry,” Ria Novosti quoted Popovkin as saying. “It is highly unlikely that its parts would reach Earth.”
In addition to the Russian lander, the Phobos-Grunt mission also carried the Chinese orbiter Yinghuo-1 and the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment experiment funded by the Planetary Society.
The loss of the Phobos-Grunt probe is no doubt an embarrassment to the Russian space agency, whose Mars 96 probe suffered a similar fate some 16 years earlier. It’s also a sobering reminder that although humans do have the technology to reach other worlds, doing so is still a tricky business.
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