Russian probe Phobos-Grunt to crash land in Indian Ocean

12 Jan 2012

Scientists and engineers work on the Phobos-Grunt probe before its launch on 9 November 2011 from Baikonur Cosmodrome

It now appears probable that the ill-fated Russian probe that had been destined for Mars will crash land somewhere in the Indian Ocean between 14-16 January, according to the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos.

The fallout of the Phobos-Grunt, which carries 7.5 tonnes of toxic fuel, is expected to happen southwest of Jakarta, but even though the space agency is hoping it will fall into the ocean, far away from populated areas, it still can’t fully confirm the exact latitudes or timings right now.

The precise timing and latitudes of the fallout of the satellite are expected to become more defined as the altitude of the probe, which is currently orbiting Earth, gets lower.

Yesterday, a Roscosmos source issued the following statement: “The forecast window for the fallout of the Phobos-Grunt debris on the Earth was set between January 14 and January 16 with the focal point at 13:18 Moscow time on January 15. The probable fallout area is located from 51.4 degrees northern longitude to 51.4 degrees of southern latitude.”

Roscosmos has said it believes the fuel will burn on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Russian space agency is also expecting that up to 30 pieces of the probe, weighing up to 200kg, could survive re-entry.

The US$170m probe had been launched on 9 November last from Baikonur Cosmodrome to explore one of Mars’ moons.

The mission had been expected to last for two and a half years but it was forced to abort shortly after its launch due to engine failure. 

The booster did not turn on so the spacecraft did not manage to change this initial orbit and transfer to the interplanetary trajectory towards Mars, indicated Lev Zelenyi, director of the Space Research Institute (IKI), the organisation that oversaw the development of Phobos-Grunt, in December.

Hostile interference?

Speaking earlier this week to Russian newspaper Izvestia, the head of the Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin alluded that the probe might have been tampered with, outside of the Russian space agency’s control, suggesting potential hostile interference.

“I do not want to blame anyone, but these days there are very powerful means to influence space vehicles,” Popovkin told Izvestia.

He also pointed to how the space agency could not understand the “frequent failures of our space vehicles when they fly over the shadow, for Russia, part of the Earth”, adding that in such positions the Russian space agency is “unable to see the vehicle and to receive its telemetry”.

However, he did indicate the probe was most likely doomed from the start, due to limited funds and because expiration dates for some parts had been nearing.

“If we had not sent it to Mars in 2011, we would have had to throw it away, writing off expenditures of 5bn rubles,” he claimed.

In December, Roscosmos established a commission to investigate the failure and a defence ministry task force to prepare for the uncontrolled re-entry of the satellite on Earth.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic