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Falling Russian Satellite Appears To Be Moving Backwards

January 5, 2012

Another reason to look skyward on these clear nights.

Phobos-Grunt, a Russian Mars probe stuck in Earth orbit since November, is sinking back into the atmosphere. Best estimates suggest re-entry will occur on Jan. 15th or 16th. Meanwhile, citizen scientists can see the probe moving through the night sky sometimes shining as brightly as a first-magnitude star.

“It appears that the satellite is moving backwards with its solar panels deployed but not receiving the sunlight,” notes Legault. “This may explain why Phobos-Grunt had no energy to communicate with Earth.” An 80-second video shows the probe soaring almost directly above Legault’s observing site on the Plateau de Calern. “At the scale of the video the satellite would cross your screen in about 1/30s,” he says.

While a telescope is required to see the outlines of the spacecraft, the human eye alone is sufficient to see Phobos-Grunt as a speck of light in the night sky. On high passes, it glows almost as brightly as a first magnitude star

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig skip Weis permalink
    January 15, 2012 9:17 PM

    MOSCOW — A failed probe that was designed to travel to a moon of Mars but got stuck in Earth orbit has crashed into the Pacific Ocean, Russian officials said Sunday.

    The unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe was one of the heaviest and most toxic space derelicts ever to crash to Earth, but there were no reports of injury or damage. There’s a good chance that no one actually saw the spacecraft’s fiery plunge.

    “Phobos-Grunt fragments have crashed down in the Pacific Ocean,” the RIA-Novosti news service quoted Alexei Zolotukhin, a spokesman for Russia’s aerospace defense forces, as saying. The debris zone was said to be 775 miles (1,250 kilometers) west of Wellington Island in the South Pacific. Re-entry was estimated to occur at about 12:45 p.m. ET, based on the data received by the Russians.

    In a Twitter update, the European Space Agency said several sources confirmed that estimate but added that experts were still checking the details. A later RIA-Novosti report quoted an unnamed source as saying the probe may have continued farther along its orbital track and crashed in Brazil or into the Atlantic Ocean.

    Russia’s Roscosmos space agency predicted that only between 20 and 30 fragments of the Phobos probe with a total weight of up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms) would survive the re-entry and plummet to Earth. Heiner Klinkrad, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, agreed with that assessment, adding that about 100 metric tons of space junk fall on Earth every year.

    “This is 200 kilograms out of these 100 tons,” he told The Associated Press.

    Thousands of pieces of derelict space vehicles orbit Earth, occasionally posing danger to astronauts and satellites in orbit, but as far as is known, no one has ever been hurt by falling space debris.

    Phobos-Grunt weighed 13.5 metric tons (14.9 English tons), and that included a load of 11 metric tons (12 tons) of highly toxic rocket fuel intended for the long journey to the Martian moon of Phobos. It was left unused as the probe got stuck in orbit around Earth shortly after its Nov. 9 launch.

    Roscosmos said all of the fuel would burn up on re-entry, a forecast Klinkrad said was supported by calculations done by NASA and ESA.

    The space era has seen far larger spacecraft crash. NASA’s Skylab space station that went down in 1979 weighed 85 tons (77 metric tons), and Russia’s Mir space station that deorbited in 2001 weighed about 143 tons (130 metric tons). Their descent fueled fears around the world, but the wreckage of both fell far away from populated areas.

    The $170 million Phobos-Grunt mission was Russia’s most expensive and the most ambitious interplanetary endeavor since Soviet times. The spacecraft was intended to land on the crater-dented, potato-shaped Martian moon, collect soil samples and fly them back to Earth, giving scientists precious materials that could shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.


  2. Craig permalink
    January 6, 2012 8:16 AM

    What goes up, does come down.
    I don’t know how it works but Walter Cronkite during America’s great space race said that satelites constantly fall back towards earth and every orbit [I assume at speed] tosses them back into orbit. Or something like that.

    NASA, what’s left of it after funding cuts, is still tracking one astronaut’s glove that floated out of the open hatch on an Apollo capsule many years ago. Weighing just a pound it still can be lethal to any space vehicle at 18,000 mph.


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