Friday, January 13, 2012

Russian Mars Probe to Crash Soon, With World Watching

A coordinated global campaign is monitoring a wayward Russian Mars probe that’s slated to crash to Earth in the next few days, the European Space Agency has announced.

The doomed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which Russian officials estimate will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere between Saturday and Monday (Jan. 14-16), is now officially a target for the 12-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, or IADC for short.

“An IADC re-entry prediction campaign is ongoing since January 2. Phobos-Grunt was identified to be no high-risk object,” said Heiner Klinkrad, head of the space debris office at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Space Operations Centerin Darmstadt, Germany. “Hence, this will be adopted as our annual ‘test campaign’ for 2012,” he told SPACE.com.

The determination that Phobos-Grunt is not a high-risk piece of space junk is due to the relatively low dry mass of the errant spacecraft — just 2.5 tons. There is about 11 tons of toxic propellant onboard, adding up to the probe’s total mass of 13.5 tons.

According to ESA, studies by the Russian space agency (known as Roscosmos) and NASA indicate that Phobos-Grunt’s fuel tanks should burst high above the Earth, releasing a load of propellant that will subsequently dissipate. [Photos of the Phobos-Grunt mission]

“Because it was stuck in low Earth orbit rather than heading towards Mars, this has meant that it’s full of fuel too,” said Alice Gorman, a lecturer in the School of Humanities, Department of Archaeology at Flinders University in South Australia.

Gorman specializes in space archaeology and noted that the fuel tanks, according to the Russian space agency, are made of aluminum.

“More than 50 percent of all re-entered spacecraft material is titanium, beryllium or steel, which has a melting point twice that of aluminum, so the likelihood of the fuel tanks surviving is very low,” Gorman said. “The fuel is reported to be hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, which boil at 113 degrees Celsius and 21 degrees C (235 F to 69 F) respectively, so it will evaporate at high altitude once the tanks go.”

Phobos-Grunt leftovers

Roscosmos has said that, at most, 20 to 30 fragments of Phobos-Grunt, weighing a total of less than 440 pounds (200 kilograms), may reach Earth’s surface. However, given that most of our planet’s surface is covered by water, the probability that these pieces will fall onto populated terrain is seen as very small.

Phobos-Grunt also carries a small Chinese Mars orbiter called Yinghuo-1. Chinese state media declared the Yinghuo-1 probe a loss back in mid-November.

Full article: http://www.foxnews.c … with-world-watching/

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