Image: Breakup
Michael Carroll
An artist's conception shows the breakup of the Phobos-Grunt probe during the final phases of its atmospheric re-entry.
By
updated 1/14/2012 5:27:21 PM ET 2012-01-14T22:27:21

Russia's botched Mars probe mission Phobos-Grunt is fast approaching a fiery death, with just one or two days remaining before it falls from space, experts and Russian space officials say.

"The European Space Agency's current re-entry prediction for Phobos-Grunt … points to the early evening (Central European Time) on Sunday, Jan. 15, with an uncertainty of plus/minus five orbits," equal to plus or minus 7.5 hours, Heiner Klinkrad, head of the space debris office at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, told Space.com in an email Saturday.

A statement from Russia's Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) also pegged Sunday as the crash day for Phobos-Grunt, but went even further. According to the statement, released in Russian, the 14-ton spacecraft filled with fuel is expected to fall on Sunday and may crash in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Chile.

Russian space officials pegged the potential crash time as occurring at about 4:51 p.m. ET Sunday,  although major uncertainties still remain. There is a chance the spacecraft could fall earlier in the day, oron Monday.

Falling Russian Mars probe
ESA and a host of other space agencies and organizations have been closely monitoring the decay of the doomed Russian spacecraft. [Infographic: The Fall of Russia's Doomed Phobos-Grunt]

Russian space agency officials say they expect that, at most, 20 to 30 fragments of Phobos-Grunt may survive the fiery re-entry and reach Earth's surface.

But given that most of Earth's surface is covered with water, the odds that these leftovers — with a predicted total mass of less than 440 pounds (200 kilograms) — would fall onto dry land is very small, scientists say.

Russia launched the Phobos-Grunt mission on Nov. 9. The spacecraft was designed to fly to Phobos, one of two moons circling Mars.

Once at Phobos, the space probe was expected to collect samples from the Martian moon and then return them to Earth in 2014. However, shortly after launch, the spacecraft failed to boost itself out of Earth orbit to begin the trip to Mars.

Packed with toxic fuel
One unique aspect of the Phobos-Grunt re-entry is its large cache of onboard fuel.

While the dry mass of the wayward satellite is just 2.5 tons, the probe totes about 11 tons of toxic propellant, which went unused when the craft became marooned in Earth orbit and didn't head outbound to Mars. [Photos of the Phobos-Grunt Mars Mission]

Orbital debris experts suggest that Phobos-Grunt's fuel tanks, reportedly made of aluminum that contains unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, or UDMH, will explode high above the Earth. Those heat-succumbing tanks would therefore release the load of propellant to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Image: Trajectory
Roscosmos
This graphic shows the projected trajectory for the Phobos-Grunt probe, as calculated by Russia's space agency. Re-entry could conceivably come anywhere along the blue track. This projection suggests that the probe has no chance of hitting North America, but the forecast is still subject to change.

"The 'it just burns up' issue remains, invisible frankly," said Martin Ross, director of The Aerospace Corp.'s Center for Launch Emissions and Atmospheric Research in El Segundo, Calif.  

"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," Ross told Space.com. "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."

Flying in space is hard
Phobos-Grunt is also outfitted with a nose-cone shaped descent vehicle wrapped in a thermal protection system. It was meant to haul back to Earth samples collected at Phobos. That hardware was designed to sky-dive through Earth’s atmosphere to a hard landing without parachute in the Sary Shagan missile test range in Kazakhstan — if the Mars mission achieved success.

Nestled inside that re-entry sample capsule is the Planetary Society's tiny Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) biomodule, which carries a select set of microorganisms.

"Trackers won't be able to predict where debris may fall until just a few hours before the event, so it’s impossible to say whether the biomodule will be recovered," the Planetary Society said in a statement.

“What we’ve seen is heartbreaking reinforcement of an oft-repeated maxim. Space is hard! We are disappointed that our remarkable test of the hardiness of living organisms will not get the 34 months in deep space we had hoped for," said the Planetary Society's chief executive officer, Bill Nye, also known as the Science Guy.

"We also offer our condolences to the China National Space Administration; it's their first Mars mission and a disappointment," Nye added.

Like LIFE, China's Yinghuo-1 orbiter hoped to catch a ride to Mars on Phobos-Grunt in order to study the Red Planet.

Crash from the past
Russia has a bit of history regarding satellites falling from space and tumbling onto land.

Due to a propulsion system failure, the Cosmos 954 spacecraft — a Soviet nuclear-powered radar ocean reconnaissance satellite — fell into Canada's Northwest Territories in January 1978. It had been in space for only four months.

Large amounts of radioactive material from the satellite's fall were scattered from Great Slave Lake into northern Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Subsequently, a joint U.S.-Canadian cleanup operation picked up roughly 0.1 percent of Cosmos 954's power source. The spacecraft's nuclear reactor worked on uranium, enriched with isotope of uranium-235.

Canadian authorities determined that all but two of the Cosmos 954 fragments recovered were radioactive. Some fragments located proved to be of lethal radioactivity.

The spacecraft's plummet into Canada also marked the first time that the adjudicative process built into the United Nations' Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects was put to the test.

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Canada's claims against the Soviet Union added up to more than $6 million. In 1981, the Soviets coughed up $3 million to settle the Canadian claim of reimbursement.

Unlike the Cosmos satellite, Russia's Phobos-Grunt is a solar-powered spacecraft. One instrument on the probe does carry a small amount of the radioactive element cobalt-57. However, Lev Zelenyi, director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow and chairman of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Solar System Exploration Board, has stated that the amount contained in that instrument is less than 10 micrograms and no significant problems are anticipated.

Standby alert
As Phobos-Grunt draws closer and closer to its fiery finale, a worldwide team of skywatchers is on standby alert in the hopes of spotting the fall.

"Experienced observers know that the probability of seeing any given satellite re-entry is very small, so they maintain very low expectations," said Canada-based Ted Molczan, a leader in the citizen network of observers. "Those who are keen to observe one [a re-entry of space hardware] will monitor the trend in the decay estimates.

"If it appears that re-entry will occur at about the time Earth’s rotation drags their location through the plane of the orbit, then they may go out and have a look, still fully expecting to see nothing, but knowing they have maximized their personal odds," Molczan said.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for Space.com since 1999.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Russian spacecraft may fall to Earth Sunday

  1. Closed captioning of: Russian spacecraft may fall to Earth Sunday

    >>> looks like we have another piece of space junk to look out for. this will be the third in five months, by the way. this time it's different. it's a russian spacecraft and at 14 1/2 tons, it's one of the largest and heaviest ever to plum et uncontrollably to earth. it was just launched in november on a mission to mars. an electronic glitch left it in space. russians are assuring the world only about 20 or 30 of the heavier chunks are likely to survive reentry to earth's orbit. the latest forecast has this thing crash landing sunday or monday. perhaps over the indian ocean , potentially close to madagascar. if so, they'll have to move it, move it, but we all know a lot more information will be coming as the weekend approaches.

Photos: Year in Space 2011

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  1. Ultimate space shot

    2011 was a year of farewells in space: an end to the space shuttle program ... NASA's official abandonment of the Spirit rover on Mars ... and the leavetaking of NASA's next Mars rover. This unprecedented image shows a different kind of leavetaking. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli snapped the picture of Endeavour docked to the International Space Station on May 23 as he was leaving in a Soyuz spacecraft. This was the only opportunity to photograph the space station and shuttle together from an orbital vantage point. (Paolo Nespoli / NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Tribute to Gabby

    During a post-landing ride on a Russian helicopter, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly wears a blue "Gabby" wristband in honor of his sister-in-law, wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly and his fellow crew members from the International Space Station returned to Earth on March 16. Kelly's twin brother, Mark Kelly, is Giffords' husband. The two Kellys were the only twins to serve together in NASA's astronaut corps. Mark Kelly retired from NASA in October. (Bill Ingalls / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Up from the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the shuttle Endeavour's ascent on May 16 while she was on a commercial airline flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Hanging on

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station. During the seven-hour, 24-minute spacewalk on May 27, Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections of Chamitoff's helmet visor) moved a 50-foot-long inspection boom to the station, officially completing U.S. station assembly. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. First Family on the final frontier

    Astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, beneath the shuttle Atlantis' underbelly during an April 29 tour of an Orbiter Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Obamas visited the space center in hopes of seeing the shuttle Endeavour's final launch, but liftoff was delayed due to a technical glitch. The Obamas couldn't return to the cape for the Endeavour launch on May 16. Atlantis' launch in July closed out the 30-year space shuttle program. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Waiting for the last launch

    Spur King, from Armarillo, Texas, sleeps on the roof of a van in Titusville, Fla., as he waits to watch the liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on July 8. Atlantis' mission marked the end of the 30-year space shuttle era. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Last liftoff

    NASA managers watch from Firing Room Four of the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center as the space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on July 8. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Look! Up in the sky!

    Spectators watch the shuttle Atlantis ascend for the last time from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Back to Earth

    The space shuttle Atlantis blazes a trail back home through the atmosphere in this photograph, captured by the crew aboard the International Space Station on July 21. Airglow over Earth can be seen on the horizon. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Night landing

    The space shuttle Atlantis glides down from a moonlit sky to the runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21. Atlantis' touchdown marked the end of a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. On the beam

    A glowing laser shines forth from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, in a picture captured by ESO Photo Ambassador Gerhard Hüdepohl. The beam energizes sodium atoms high in Earth’s mesosphere, causing them to glow and creating a bright dot that looks like a star to observers on the ground. That artificial star serves as a guide for the telescope's adaptive optics system. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Does 'Pacman' have teeth?

    In visible light, the star-forming cloud cataloged as NGC 281 in the constellation of Cassiopeia appears to be chomping through the cosmos. Astronomers nicknamed NGC 281 the "Pacman Nebula," after the famous Pac-Man video game of the 1980s. This infrared view from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, released Oct. 26, reveals jagged rows of "teeth" that are actually pillars of interstellar dust. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Getting the rover ready

    NASA engineers stand by a conical shell that will help protect the Curiosity rover, a robot the size of a car, from the searing temperatures of atmospheric entry when it lands on Mars next year. This picture of the rover preparations was taken at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 4. Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in November and is due to land on Mars in August 2012. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Millipedes on Mars

    Martian sand dunes ripple across this false-color image from the high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. What's fascinating about this image, released Oct. 17, are the ridges running the length of the dunes, creating the spectacular illusion that we're looking at millipedes. This is a good example of what's called "pareidolia," where our brain interprets a pattern as representing a familiar object - such as the Face on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Walking on a mock Mars

    A mock mission to Mars "landed" on a simulated Red Planet on Feb. 14, and in the days afterward, volunteer crew members went on three make-believe Marswalks. The simulated surface was actually a giant sandpit, built inside a Moscow research institute. The exercise was the climax of a 520-day isolation experiment aimed at studying how a future real-life crew would handle the psychological stresses of a Mars mission. (Lightroom Photos / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Celestial snow angel

    The bipolar star-forming region called Sharpless 2-106, or S106 for short, looks like a soaring, celestial snow angel in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Dec. 15. The outstretched "wings" of the nebula record the contrasting imprint of heat and motion against the backdrop of a colder medium. Twin lobes of super-hot gas, glowing blue in this image, stretch outward from the central star. A ring of dust and gas orbiting the star acts like a belt, cinching the expanding nebula into an hourglass shape. (NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Outer-space ornament

    The moon hangs over Earth's limb like a holiday ornament in a picture from the International Space Station.. Original tweet from Oct: 21, 2011: "#TGIF Here's a beautiful moon shot to start your weekend #NASA #ISS" http://twitpic.com/73povh (Ron Garan / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights during 2012 - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A little lunar base

    Hillary Livingston adds the finishing touches to a scale-model lunar base camp in the "Beyond Planet Earth" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Nov. 10. The exhibition looks forward to the next 50 to 100 years of spaceflight, with the intention of fueling dreams of colonizing the moon and Mars. (Piotr Redlinski / New York Times via Redux) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. After the landing

    An aerial view shows vehicles with their headlights on converging on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in northern Kazakhstan after its landing on Nov. 22. The capsule brought NASA astronaut Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa back to Earth from the International Space Station. (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Galactic firestorm

    The fiery birth of stars is chronicled in this view of the galaxy Centaurus A, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on June 16. (NASA/ESA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. In the dish

    Engineers carry out maintenance on the focus box inside the 76-meter dish of the Lovell Telescope on June 21 in Holmes Chapel, England. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Groovy view of Vesta

    This image obtained by the framing camera on NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. The probe entered orbit around Vesta on July 16 for a year's worth of observations. Scientists are discussing whether the circular structure that covers most of this image originated by a collision with another asteroid, or by internal processes early in the asteroid's history. Images in higher resolution might help answer that question. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A falling star in autumn

    An Orionid meteor streaks through the skies above French Creek State Park in Pennsylvania early Oct. 22, with the reds, yellows and oranges of autumn reflected in the trees below. (Jeff Berkes) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Colorful crash

    The Antennae are a pair of colliding galaxies about 70 million light-years away in the constellation Corvus. This color-coded image, released Oct. 3, combines views from the Hubble Space Telescope and the newly inaugurated ALMA radio telescope array in Chile. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. That's heavy, dude

    An unmanned Boeing Delta 4 Heavy rocket rises from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Jan. 27. The heavy-lift launch vehicle sent a spy satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. This was the largest rocket ever launched from the West Coast. (Bryan Walton / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Monster blast from the sun

    When an M-3.6-class flare occurred near the edge of the sun, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted over a 90-minute period on Feb. 24. The event was captured in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Some of the material blew out into space, and other portions fell back to the surface. (SDO Goddard Space Flight Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Quartet of moons

    Four Saturnian moons, from tiny to huge, make an appearance amid the planet's rings in this composition from the Cassini orbiter, released Oct. 24. Bright Dione is in the foreground, with Titan in the background. The dot just to the right of Saturn's nearly edge-on rings is Pandora, and Pan is just a speck embedded within the rings, to the left of Titan and Dione. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Lights, camera, action

    Norwegian photographer Tommy Eliason captured this amazing view of the northern lights, the Milky Way and a meteor streaking across the sky over Ifjord, Norway, on Sept. 25. The year was notable for producing frequent auroral displays. (Tommy Eliassen / Caters News Agency) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Pool practice

    With the aid of scuba divers, spacesuit-clad astronaut trainees take part in drills in a pool at Russia's Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow on Feb. 18. Underwater training simulates conditions of weightlessness and is a part of space crew training. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Chinese ship seen from space

    This Dec. 8 satellite image provided by the DigitalGlobe Analysis Center shows the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi Lang (a.k.a. Varyag) sailing in the Yellow Sea, approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) south-southeast of the port of Dalian, China. (Digitalglobe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. The glow below

    A picture taken from the International Space Station on Sept. 17 shows two docked Russian spacecraft with the southern lights below. The auroral display is caused by the interaction between solar particles and Earth's magnetic field. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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