Wed, Dec 21, 2011
Most Of Probe's 14 Ton Mass Is Fuel, Will Burn Up On
Russia's Fobos-Grunt probe (model photographed by Pavel
Kolotilov) was launched November 9, headed for one of the moons of
Mars. But the mission encountered communications troubles early,
and the spacecraft has been stuck in Earth orbit. Now, Russia
admits it will fall into the atmosphere in early January, but
stresses there is not a serious risk to anyone on the ground.
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos,
says between 20 and 30 pieces weighing a total of about 440 pounds
or less will survive reentry. That doesn't sound like much left of
a spacecraft weighing 14.6 tons, but most of that weight is the
fuel it would have used getting to Mars. While highly toxic, the
fuel is expected to burn off high in the atmosphere and dissipate
There is also 22 pounds of radioactive Cobalt-57 in one of the
probe's instruments, but Roscosmos tells the Associated Press it
will not pose a threat of contamination on Earth.
The Russians have gone a long stretch without launching an
interplanetary mission. The last attempt was another unmanned probe
to Mars in 1996, but that one was lost after an engine failure.
The Fobos-Grunt mission, which translates to Phobos-Ground in
English, was expected to help settle the question of whether the
Martian moon Phobos, with its heavily cratered surface, is an
asteroid captured by Martian gravity, or a piece of the planet
which broke off in a collision with another celestial body.
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