The Phobos-Grunt is a multi-million dollar probe that is no longer expected to fulfill its mission to a moon of Mars.
The 165 million dollar piece of equipment was launched on Wednesday and may head back to earth if engineers don’t regain control of Phobos-Grunt.
That may prove to be even harder since efforts to communicate with the spacecraft have been unsuccessful.
“The big concern is the toxic propellant,” explains astronomer Andrew Yee.
“The spacecraft is relying on internal batteries for power,” says Yee, “At this rate the batteries will be drained soon, and the entire spacecraft will drop dead for good.”
There is still some debate over when the re-entry will happen. The U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) is forecasting November 26 as the re-entry date. Nicholas Johnson, Chief Scientist for the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston, estimated that Phobos-Grunt would not reenter until next month; perhaps as late as the end of December. The Russian space agency Roscosmos is giving an estimate that Phobos-Grunt will remain in space until January.
One of the major mission goals for the probe was to land on Phobos, which is the larger of the two Martian moons, and return a soil sample to Earth.
“The capsule to hold the soil sample is well insulated, and hardened to survive a hard landing,” says Yee, “The concern now is that the soil sample capsule could be torn off from the spacecraft during the re-entry and ends up landing somewhere along the uncontrolled re-entry path.”
It is still too early for even an educated guess to predict where the probe’s re-entry path will be. Only, two hours before it re-enters will experts have a better idea of a location.
“Two days before the launch of Phobos-Grunt, the head of Roscosmos (Russian Space Agency) said that Phobos-Grunt was underfunded, took longer to develop and build, and had inadequate testing so as to meet the launch timeline,” states Yee.
On February 21, 2008, the United States launched a missile that blasted the uncontrolled re-entry of the USA193 satellite into pieces. The possibility of Phobos-Grunt meeting the same fate remains to be seen.
With files from Lyndsay Morrison