A Russian probe destined for a mission on Mars that went missing shortly after takeoff in November is due to crash land on Earth this weekend.
The unmanned space probe, Phobos-Grunt, was launched on November 8 on a pioneering mission to bring soil samples back from Phobos, a small Moon orbiting Mars. A glitch however, left the spacecraft stranded in orbit instead of carrying out its mission.
“What’s different about this re-entry is that it’s not a re-entry of an old, inert satellite that just was expected for years. It’s something that is coming down because of an accident … for me, that puts it in a different category,” Jonathan McDowell, a researcher at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., is quoted saying by the Seattle Pi.
Weighing in at 13.2 metric tons the Phobos-Ground considered one of the largest spacecraft ever to plummet to Earth.
Despite its size and contents (reports say the satellite is bringing with it some highly toxic fuel and a tiny amount of radioactive cobalt), however, space experts agree the falling probe is unlikely to pose big risks.
According to the Russian space agency Roscosmos, current predictions are for the surviving bits of the probe to splash down into the Indian Ocean sometime between Saturday and Monday (Jan. 14 to Jan. 16), but as previous uncontrolled descents have shown, this cannot be guaranteed.
“The greatest probability is that it will land in the sea,” Professor Richard Crowther, chief engineer of the UK Space Agency, told the UK news site, the Daily Mirror.
Regarding the toxic fuel, Crowther added that if the fuel has frozen, some could survive the plummet to Earth, but that if it is liquid it will likely combust from the heat of re-entering the atmosphere.
According to CNN, the Phobos-Grunt probe’s loss is the latest in a series of recent setbacks for Russia’s space program.
On August 24, a Progress M-12M space freighter carrying food and other items to the international space station broke up over southern Siberia after failing to separate from its Soyuz-U carrier rocket, RIA Novosti reported.
Six days earlier, Russia lost a sophisticated Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite when the launch vehicle put it into the wrong orbit.