Continued from page 1

Russia’s space chief has acknowledged the Phobos-Ground mission was ill-prepared, but said that Roscosmos had to give it the go-ahead so as not to miss the limited Earth-to-Mars launch window.

Its predecessor, Mars-96, which was built by the same Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin company, experienced an engine failure and crashed shortly after its launch in 1996. Its crash drew strong international fears because of around 200 grams of plutonium onboard. The craft eventually showered its fragments over the Chile-Bolivia border in the Andes Mountains, and the pieces were never recovered.

The worst ever radiation spill from a derelict space vehicle came in January 1978 when the nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 satellite crashed over northwestern Canada. The Soviets claimed the craft completely burned up on re-entry, but a massive recovery effort by Canadian authorities recovered a dozen fragments, most of which were radioactive.

The Phobos-Ground also contained a tiny quantity of the radioactive metal Cobalt-57 in one of its instruments, but Roscosmos said it poses no threat of radioactive contamination.

The spacecraft also carried a small cylinder with a collection of microbes as part of an experiment by the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society that designed to explore whether they can survive interplanetary travel. The cylinder is attached to a capsule that was supposed to deliver Phobos ground samples back to Earth.

Igor Marinin, the editor of Russia’s Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, said on Russia’s NTV television that it would likely be destroyed.

Calls to Brazil’s National Space Institute and also the Goias state security secretariat were not returned. There was no mention in the Brazilian press of any debris crashing in Brazilian territory.