It’s just at the stage of concern at the moment, but the time when it’ll suddenly change to panic is not far away. The doomed Russian Mars spacecraft Phobos-Grunt, is scheduled to plunge into the water tomorrow. The problem is that no one knows where it’ll hit.
Estimated location: South of Buenos Aires, in the Atlantic Ocean near Falkland Islands.
Estimated time of impact: 8:22 PM GMT
The craft had been launched on November 9th, but got stuck in orbit soon afterwards. There were several attempts made to get it working, but nothing came of those. Now, the Russian space agency wants to bring it down permanently.
Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, added to this atmosphere of confusion with a wrong prediction. They had initially said that it would fall somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but later retracted that statement and said that it would hit somewhere in the Atlantic. Its official statement, as told to Interfax:
Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere over Argentina and have its fragments splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.
The latest estimate by Roscosmos showed that the craft will descend somewhere south of Buenos Aires, but that puts the Falkland Islands in some danger of being hit. The time of the crash was supposedly Sunday afternoon, but Roscosmos modified that to late evening, with the new time being 1622 GMT.
The concerns arise from two main sources.
Firstly, the craft is quite big. It is dwarfed only by the Mir Space Station when it comes to objects that have been pulled down from orbit and plunged into the ocean. The craft is big enough to allow about 20-30 pieces of debris, each weighing more than 200 kg, to survive the fall and hit earth.
Secondly, the big fear is that of a toxic nuclear spill. The craft was packed with enough nuclear fuel to take it to Mars. Obviously, in just 2 months only a fraction has been burnt up. NASA has, however, played down the fears saying that the fuels batteries are made of aluminum instead of titanium. Aluminum will rupture and allow the fuel to be burnt during freefall. NASA reported on its official website:
According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth.
(Mr. Johnson refers to Nicholas Johnson, one of NASA’s chief scientists).
Roscosmos has promised to keep all concerned nations and the United Nations posted on developments about the craft.
An embarrassing setback
The Phobos-Grunt mission represents a serious setback for the Russian space agency, which is well past its peak. The mission was quite ambitious, and success would’ve been glorious, especially in the backdrop of the retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet. However, the Russians seem quite ill-equipped to seize this golden moment provided by History.
The craft might end tomorrow, but the embarrassment will live on for quite some time.