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Fragments of Phobos Grunt crash into the Pacific Ocean

By

January 15, 2012

Phobos-Grunt probe being prepared for launch (Photo: Roscosmos)

Phobos-Grunt probe being prepared for launch (Photo: Roscosmos)

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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.

Phobos-Grunt Mars probe (Photo: Pavel Kolotilov)

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.

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
7 Comments

I hope the cobalt-57 and its containment vessel came down in one piece.

Slowburn
15th January, 2012 @ 06:16 pm PST

I don't know how to break this to you, but the Pacific Ocean is NOT uninhabited. The idea that we can dump toxins and radioactive waste into the ocean and have no worries about it is short-sighted at best.

What's the plan for de-orbiting the International Space Station when its time has come? Are we just going to let that fall wherever?

Keith Nealy
15th January, 2012 @ 06:26 pm PST

Keith - I'm sure it will be a controlled de-orbit into the ocean. Most would burn up during re-entry, FYI their isn't any thing radioactive on the ISS.

As for this Martian probe, were talking about a very small reactor, in a very big ocean. It's a non-issue.

Derek Howe
15th January, 2012 @ 07:40 pm PST

Given the propensity of compounds to concentrate in the food chain nothing of this nature should be considered a non-issue. However, given all the other toxic stuff we throw in the oceans maybe it will never show up as a single event. Either way, we can rely on the high cost of detection and easy suppression of such stories to enable us to ignore the problem when it occurs.

Robbie Price
16th January, 2012 @ 11:31 am PST

Also, Keith - Please look up the word 'uninhibited'.

Neil
16th January, 2012 @ 01:22 pm PST

Wow the Russians and their love affair with nuclear fuel has cost the rest of the Earth dearly. Maybe they should be drinking less and doing more about plan B and C? The Pacific has been a dumping ground for too long for you bastards in the Northern hemisphere. This has worried me ever since I first heard of the difficulties the probe was in. How is it less of a colossal communist cluster f**k to have this s**t floating around in our Atmosphere and Ocean? I am not that happy about bringing things back from Mars to Earth either. Why do we want to go to Mars again? Is it because you boffins will have f**ked our lovely planet over beyond repair soon? For smart people you sure are dumb.

captain caveman
16th January, 2012 @ 03:09 pm PST

The South Pacific has a really low population density making it one of the better places for a rain of debris.

Cobalt-57 is a gamma emitter with a short half-life of 271.79 days, so in less than 7 years it will be effectively gone.

The fuel presumably was vented and burned in the upper atmosphere when the tanks lost integrity thus the contamination won't be notably higher in the South Pacific than the Atlantic.

Slowburn
16th January, 2012 @ 04:35 pm PST
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