Reports: Russian space probe crashes into Pacific

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MOSCOW (AP) - Russia’s Defense Ministry says a failed probe designed to travel to a moon of Mars has crashed, showering debris over the southern Pacific, according to news reports.

The ministry said the fragments fell Sunday 1,250 kilometers (775 miles) west of Wellington Island.

The Phobos Ground was one of the heaviest and most toxic space junk ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts said the risks posed by its crash were minimal as the probe’s toxic rocket fuel and most of the craft’s structure were to burn up in the atmosphere anyway.

The $170-million Phobos-Ground was Russia’s most expensive and the most ambitious space mission since Soviet times. The spacecraft was intended to land on Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons, collect soil samples and fly them back to Earth.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

MOSCOW (AP) _ A failed Russian probe designed to travel to a moon of Mars but stuck in Earth orbit will come crashing down within hours, likely in a shower of fragments that survive the fiery re-entry.

The unmanned Phobos Ground is one of the heaviest and most toxic space derelicts ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts say the risks are minimal as its orbit is mostly over water and most of the probe’s structure will burn up in the atmosphere anyway.

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said the Phobos-Ground will crash between 1750 and 1834 GMT (1:50 p.m. and 2:34 p.m. EST). It said the probe could come down anywhere along its orbit that would place it over southern Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, South America and Pacific. The rest of the world, including the U.S. and Canada, is outside the risk zone.

“The resulting risk isn’t significant,” said Prof. Heiner Klinkrad, Head of The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office that is monitoring the probe’s descent.

He wouldn’t say where exactly the probe may enter the atmosphere, but said that “most of Europe is excluded from an impact risk.”

Roscosmos predicts that only between 20 and 30 fragments of the Phobos probe with a total weight of up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) will survive the re-entry and plummet to Earth.

Klinkrad agreed with that assessment, adding that about 100 metric tons of space junk fall on Earth every year. “This is 200 kilograms out of these 100 tons,” he said.

Thousands of pieces of derelict space vehicles orbit Earth, occasionally posing danger to astronauts and satellites in orbit, but as far as is known, no one has ever been hurt by falling space debris.

The Phobos-Ground weighs 13.5 metric tons (14.9 tons), and that includes a load of 11 metric tons (12 tons) of highly toxic rocket fuel intended for the long journey to the Martian moon of Phobos. It has been left unused as the probe got stuck in orbit around Earth shortly after its Nov. 9 launch.

Roscosmos says all of the fuel will burn up on re-entry, a forecast Klinkrad said was supported by calculations done by NASA and the ESA. He said the craft’s tanks are made of aluminum alloy that has a very low melting temperature, and they will burst at an altitude of more than 100 kilometers.

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