Fragments of Phobos Grunt crash into the Pacific Ocean
By David Szondy
January 15, 2012
Russia's 13-ton (11.8-tonne) unmanned Phobos-Grunt interplanetary space probe that was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 9, 2011 has reportedly burned up in the Earth's atmosphere. According to Russian Air and Space Defence Forces, the spacecraft was destroyed on Sunday, January 15th, 2012 at 1745 GMT as it made an uncontrolled re-entry and broke up 775 miles (1,250 km) west of Chile in the South Pacific.
Roscosmos predicted that despite the size of the spacecraft, only very small fragments were likely to reach Earth and those have fallen into the Pacific Ocean. Also, the fear that the 8.3 tons (7.5 tonnes) of highly toxic propellant and radioactive cobalt-57 might cause damage on the ground have apparently been put to rest by the break up over an uninhabited sea area.
Shortly after lift off atop a Ukrainian Zenit-2 booster on November 9, an unknown malfunction occurred that prevented the Phobos-Grunt's engines from firing and the craft was trapped in low earth orbit. Despite repeated attempts by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to make contact, the probe failed to respond and the orbit soon decayed, dooming Phobos-Grunt to destruction when it hit the Earth's atmosphere.
The Phobos-Grunt (Grunt means "earth," "dirt" or "ground" in Russian) was Roscosmos's most ambitious space mission in fifteen years. It's goal was to orbit the planet Mars, where it would release a landing craft that would set down on the Martian moon Phobos. There it was intended to collect 7 ounces (200 g) of soil samples and then launch a return vehicle to return the samples to Earth. In addition, the mission also included a controversial biological experiment intended to study the effects of interplanetary flight on micro-organisms and the Chinese Mars orbiter Yinghuo-1 - China's first deep-space mission.
The US$163 million Phobos-Grunt was the largest deep-space probe since the American Cassini spacecraft was launched to Saturn in 1997, and was intended to mark Russia's return to the top table of space exploration. Instead, it marked the latest failure in a year in space that was disastrous for the former superpower.
With the loss of three satellites on launch in December 2010, another in February 2011, a third in August, and the crash of a Progress cargo ship en route to the International Space Station less than a week later, the end of Phobos-Grunt is a severe dent to Russian prestige.
Worse, it revives memories of the infamous "Mars Curse" that seems to plague attempts to reach the red planet. So far, over half of all missions have ended in disaster. Half of those failures over the past fifty years have been Russian, with the only real success dating back to 1973. Their last attempt was in 1996, and that ended up in the Pacific Ocean.