Remember the November launching of the super expensive Zenit-2 rocket carrying the super expensive Russian spacecraft (Phobos-Grunt) which in turn was also carrying that super expensive Chinese satellite (the Yinghuo-1) into outerspace? And perhaps you may also remember hearing something about a “lost” Russian probe in the Earth’s orbit? Well, they’re coming back to Earth in January, confirming earlier predictions in November of a possible crash in early January 2012.
Phobos-Grunt, the first Russian inter-planetary space mission, was originally launched for a years-long round-trip journey to the moon Phobos, the larger moon of the two moons orbiting Mars, that the spacecraft can gather rock samples and bring them back to waiting scientists on Earth.
China’s first Mars satellite, the Yinghuo-1, was also launched with the Russian spacecraft but evidently neither actually started on their voyage into space.
Phobos-Grunt experienced engine problems and despite numerous attempts by engineers and experts of the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos to signal the spacecraft to restart its engines, Phobos-Grunt remained in orbit.
Now Roscosmos and other experts are estimating that the unmanned spacecraft will fall back to Earth in 20-30 pieces (the total approximately weighing up to maybe 200 kilograms) between the 6th of January and the 19th of January.
This would not be the first time a spacecraft or a satellite has fallen back to our planet this year, as NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), the largest piece of space junk in 32 years to fall to Earth, scattered in pieces of debris across Earth this year.
Though the chances of someone getting hit by Phobos-Grunt is very, very low, many are worried about the 11 tons of potentially fatal and the toxic fuel along with 10 kilograms of cobalt-57 (a radioactive substance) on the spacecraft.
Roscosmos has dismissed the concerns saying that the fuel, made up of dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide, and the cobalt-57 will most likely be burned up as the spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere.
Others however are warning that since the substances were frozen while in orbit, some of it may survive the re-entry.
Meanwhile Roscosmos will be keeping an eye on the spacecraft and will try to calculate the exact locations in which the pieces may fall.
Phobos-Grunt is another failed Russian space project alongside the loss of an expensive satellite and disastrous manned flights.
However, the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-22 did successfully launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying three astronauts to the International Space Station.
Many are hoping for the same success with a planned launch of a substitute International Space Station crew on the 21st of December this year.
The Russian space shuttle program is currently the most viable way to get to destinations out in space such as the International Space Station since NASA shut down its own space shuttle program earlier this year.
(Cover Photo: Ralf Vandebergh)