Phobos-Grunt, the Russian space probe intended to explore Mars, crashed back to earth late on Sunday evening.
Defense Ministry official Alexei Zolotukhin told reporters tersely that “Phobos-Grunt fragments have crashed down in the Pacific Ocean”. There’s not much official news from the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos yet though, other than information narrowing down the ultimate crash site to an empty area of the Pacific Ocean around 1,250 miles east of Southern Chile.
Others, however, are claiming that some fragments actually landed in Brazil, thousands of miles to the North East. At the time of writing, there has been no independent confirmation of the probe’s impact point.
Why it’s important to know where Phobos-Grunt fell
No-one had been able to predict where exactly the probe would fall, beyond confirming that it could hit anywhere between the latitudes 51.4° North and 51.4° South. That’s a pretty massive area, encompassing virtually all of the populated areas of the globe from Southern Canada and Northern Europe all the way down to Australia and the Southern tip of Chile. You can see a graphic illustration of where it might land from this space.com infographic.
Interestingly, almost none of Russia was within the potential crash zone…
The location of the crash zone was so important because it was believed that, although Phobos-Grunt would break up in the atmosphere, some very large chunks of the probe would still survive relatively intact and could cause damage if they landed in a populated area.
There was also some concern that the spacecraft’s fuel, which is highly toxic, could scatter in the atmosphere. The fuel tank is made of a kind of Aluminum that contains unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), designed to ensure that the fuel tanks explode high in the atmosphere, dispersing any fuel. However, Martin Ross, director of The Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Launch Emissions and Atmospheric Research, told space.com that:
“What is needed is a full accounting of the material that gets vaporized and re-condenses into small particles that may remain in the upper atmosphere for many years. Some of these particles may influence chemistry, since the vaporized materials are exotic in some cases, in that region of the atmosphere in subtle ways. It remains a question mark.”
There is some hope that some of the more substantial fragments of the probe might be recovered, although previous attempts to recover crashed spacecraft from the ocean have recently been largely unsuccessful.
A disastrous year for Roscosmos?
The crash brings to an end an thoroughly depressing year for Roscosmos. The Russian Government had trumpeted 2011 as the ‘Year of Space’ but Phobos-Grunt was the fourth high profile mission failure in just 12 months.
Set on the grand scale of things, this is actually a fairly small percentage of Russia’s overall space program (less than 10% of the 48 planned launches), but the high profile nature of the failures have been an embarrassment to Russia. Although none of the crashes has involved cosmonauts and there have been no human casualties, the string of failures has led to questions about the safety of Russia’s manned launches. However, with the termination of the space shuttle program, Russia is currently the only nation capable of launching humans into space and re-supplying the International Space Station, so it’s likely that launches will continue.
In an attempt to take control of the situation, the Russian Government today announced that it would be launching an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash. The investigation is to be led by Dmitry Rogozin, former Russian Ambassador to NATO and newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister. In keeping with his somewhat direct approach to politics, Rogozin announced the news on his Facebook page, telling the world “I am taking the investigation into the reasons for the Phobos-Grunt failure under personal control.”
If you’re interested in this story, there is plenty of coverage out there around the internet. In particular, I recommend Russian Space Web’s comprehensive coverage of the entire Phobos-Grunt mission. Space news site Universe Today also has a report on today’s Phobos-Grunt crash and, if you scroll down to the bottom of their report, you can see their historical coverage of the mission. The ever excellent space.com also has live, blow by blow, coverage of the event.
You could also try the official Roscosmos website, but it’s down at the moment because the high level of interest in the probe’s crash has brought down the site’s servers. Hopefully it’ll be back up and running again soon.