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Despite Signal, Russia’s Stranded Mars Probe May Come Crashing Back To Earth

The Russian Space Agency's most recent "sputnik" is looking grim. The unmanned spacecraft was supposed to reach Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. Though the probe's signal was picked up Wednesday after vanishing for two weeks

The Phobos-Grunt satelitte at launch
The Phobos-Grunt satelitte at launch
Ksenia Zavyalova

MOSCOW -- Phobos-Grunt, a Russian unmanned spacecraft that was supposed to collect soil samples on the Martian moon of Phobos, failed to even make it out of the Earth's orbit. It did, however, manage to phone home Tuesday. A tracking station in Perth, Australia picked up a signal of the marooned probe, though it is not immediately clear if the mission might still be salvaged.

Just prior to the renewed communication, Russian scientists were predicting that the spacecraft would fall back to Earth sometime between the end of December and February. So far, scientists involved in the project have refrained from saying which parts of the spacecraft might actually reach Earth. They are also not quite sure what went wrong, saying only that Phobos-Grunt is acting "unusual."

"It's very interesting to look at how it (Phobos-Grunt) has been behaving. There is fuel on board. If there is an explosion, that is one thing, but if it just starts to break apart, that's another altogether," said Vitaly Davidov, deputy director of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Davidov went on to say that the capsule will certainly reach Earth when it falls.

Assuming that's the case, it will, however, return significantly smaller. At launch, Phobos-Grunt weighed 13.5 tons. On its return, the capsule is expected to weigh about 7 kilos. According to one Roscosmos representative, the returning capsule might fall "on somebody's head." In reality, though, that possibility is rather small.

Davidov said that the probe's exact landing spot would not be known until about 24 hours before it reaches Earth. "The atmospheric winds blow, the sun has different effects and the machine's direction can be effected by different factors, especially if it is not possible to control it," he clarified.

The troubled spacecraft was launched on Nov. 9 but quickly ran into problems with communication and failed to engage the second launch, which was supposed to propel it out of Earth's orbit towards Mars. The mission is Roscosmos' fifth high-profile failure in the past year. It is Russia's first interplanetary project since 1996, when like Phobos-Grunt, a similar probe headed for Mars but failed to leave Earth's orbit.

Read the original story in Russian

Photo - Roscosmos

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