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Friday, January 13, 2012

More death from the sky

Model of Phobos-Ground. Image by MKonair.
UPDATE, Sunday, 2:00 p.m.: Phobos-Ground is reported to have reentered Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean at about 12:45 p.m. East Coast time. It's believed to currently be somewhere over Brazil.

Failed Russian space probe will crash-land on Sunday.

By Linda Felaco

A Russian space probe that was headed for the martian moon Phobos has become the heaviest and most toxic piece of space junk ever. According to the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe will fall out of Earth orbit Sunday or Monday over the Indian Ocean just north of Madagascar.

The 14.6-ton Phobos-Ground, cylindrical and about the size of a van, is one of the heaviest spacecraft ever to plummet to Earth and is substantially larger than either of the two defunct satellites that fell to Earth last fall. But unlike the old 6-ton NASA atmospheric research satellite that crash-landed in September and the 3-ton German science satellite that followed suit in October, which were both well past their prime, Phobos-Ground was just launched in November. Due to a glitch, it ended up stranded in orbit around Earth instead of bound for Mars to collect soil samples.

The 12 tons of highly toxic rocket fuel aboard Phobos-Ground make it potentially the most toxic spacecraft ever to fall to Earth, although Roscosmos insists that all the fuel will burn in the atmosphere and that it poses no danger. Phobos-Ground also contains a small amount of the radioactive metal cobalt-57 in one of its instruments, but Roscosmos said it poses no threat of radioactive contamination. 

Though they also said a nuclear-powered Soviet spy satellite that crashed over northwestern Canada in January 1978 completely burned on re-entry, but a massive recovery effort by Canadian authorities recovered a dozen fragments, most of which were radioactive. And when the Mars-96 craft crashed to Earth with some 200 grams of plutonium onboard, the pieces were never recovered. Guess we'll find out how dangerous it really is on Sunday. Or Monday.