The Phobos-Grunt Has (Crash) Landed

Phobos-Grunt Mission Poster
[Phobos-Grunt official mission poster. Click for large size.]
(Image Credit: Credit: Roscosmos ( Russian Federal Space Agency)/IKI)

As expected, the failed Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt came screaming back to Earth, breaking apart during its collision with our atmosphere, and landing somewhere near 700 miles West of Chile in the Pacific Ocean yesterday.

While the Russian Federal Space Agency, commonly referred to as Roscosmos, has not yet reported any visual observations of debris impact, they were able to note the point it disappeared from orbit.

The 13+ ton craft, most of its weight owing to the onboard fuel that would have taken it to Mars’ moon, Phobos, was one of the larger to return to Earth after failure.  It isn’t currently known — and it may well never be — how much of it burned up in the atmosphere and how much made it to the Pacific — and then, how large those pieces were and what they were composed of. Tthe best case scenario is that all of the fuel burned up in the atmosphere.

Now, the focus will be on what went wrong, which is turning into a drama of its own with Russian officials suggesting that its failure was the result of Russian “anti-heroes” or a secret US military facility in Alaska (HAARP, I presume) purposely disabling the craft from the ground.

Follow-Up on Phobos-Grunt

Following up on a previous story about the failed Russian space probe, Phobos-Grunt, all hope of reviving the craft has been eliminated. Phobos-Grunt is expected to fall back to Earth by the end of this month. The only real questions remaining are when, where, and what might survive re-entry.


Phobos-Grunt / Image Credit: ESA

It is not uncommon for spacecraft to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, even uncontrolled (which to a degree, they all are). Disintegration upon re-entry is one of the space industry’s most popular disposal methods for decommissioned and defunct satellites and spacecraft. However, they generally aren’t carrying the amount of fuel that Phobos-Grunt has on board. Most of its 13 tons of weight is fuel — hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide stored in aluminium tanks. Since fuel tanks are generally specifically designed to withstand extreme pressure and heat, they often survive re-entry; however, the Phobos-Grunt tanks were constructed out of aluminium, which is not only cheaper, but has a lower melting temperature than other common materials. Aside from the fuel, there is also a small amount — less than 10 micrograms — of radioactive Cobalt-57, but such a small amount does not pose any significant problems.

According to Holger Krag, deputy head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, the chances of anyone seeing the re-entry, let alone be impacted by any of the debris from Phobos-Grunt, is very low.  With more than 70% of our planet covered in water,  odds are that any debris surviving re-entry will end up in an ocean.

“Relax,” Krag said. “The likelihood of somebody being hit is enormously low. It is way smaller than to be struck by lightning. If you have a thunderstorm above your city you would also not worry too much.”

To sort of sum it all up, Phobos-Grunt will soon be toast. If you’re very lucky, you might see a spectacular light show. It will probably not land on your head.

Though, there were some positive aspects to come from the failure. For example, the re-entry is a new target for the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, which is “an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space”.  The more debris we add to Earth orbit, the more important it is to be able to track and deal with the potentially-devastating material; so any “practice” that Phobos-Grunt will provide would be useful.

Additionally, the failure of Phobos-Grunt provided an opportunity for various nations and agencies, as well as professionals and amateurs, to work together on trying to revive the craft, track its orbit, and now chart its re-entry. Information was shared between all of the interested parties and there was much collaboration and cooperation; all of which is important if we are to have a global recognition of the importance of space exploration and the global initiative to work together to continue exploring.

Hope Dims For Phobos-Grunt

It’s being reported that the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, is publicly recognizing the dwindling possibility to regain contact and control of its latest Mars (Mars’ moon, Phobos, actually) mission, Phobos-Grunt. Phobos-Grunt launched on November 9 and made it into Earth orbit; however, it failed to fire its engines that would have sent it on its way to Mars’ moon Phobos.

According to the BBC:

Engineers have tried in vain to contact the spacecraft, and Roscosmos deputy head Vitaliy Davydov said the situation now looked very grim.

“One should be a realist,” he was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

Later, another Russian news agency, Interfax, quoted Davydov as saying that Phobos-Grunt might fall from orbit anytime between late December 2011 and February 2012.

This is unfortunate news on a couple of fronts. First, losing the mission to Phobos is tremendously disappointing. The research that would have been gained from that mission would have been remarkable. The second reason this situation is particularly unfortunate is that it’s not quite known what kind of consequences Earth might face when Phobos-Grunt drops out of orbit and comes crashing back down to Earth. It is currently holding quite a bit of fuel — the fuel that would have taken it to Phobos — and the design of fuel tanks often allows them to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere more successfully than other spacecraft components.

To be certain, both professionals and amateurs alike will be keeping their eyes on Phobos-Grunt and crunching the numbers to try and ascertain what might happen within the next few months if — and it is seemingly highly likely at this point — it comes back down to Earth.

Any developments will be reported here.