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.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/15/2012 2:32:45 PM ET 2012-01-15T19:32:45

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.

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Russia's space chief has acknowledged the Phobos-Grunt mission was ill-prepared, but said that Roscosmos had to give it the go-ahead so as not to miss the limited Earth-to-Mars launch window.

Its predecessor, Mars-96, which was built by the same Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin company, also suffered an engine failure and crashed shortly after its launch in 1996. Its crash drew strong international fears because there were 7 ounces (200 grams) of plutonium onboard. The craft eventually showered its fragments over the Chile-Bolivia border in the Andes Mountains, and the pieces were never recovered.

The worst-ever radiation spill from a derelict space vehicle came in January 1978 when the nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 satellite crashed over northwestern Canada. The Soviets claimed that the craft completely burned up on re-entry, but a massive recovery effort by Canadian authorities recovered a dozen fragments, most of which were radioactive.

Phobos-Grunt also contained a tiny quantity of radioactive cobalt-57 in one of its instruments, but Roscosmos said it posed no threat of radioactive contamination.

The spacecraft also carried a small cylinder with a collection of microbes as part of an experiment by the California-based Planetary Society that designed to explore whether they can survive interplanetary travel. The cylinder was attached to a capsule that was supposed to deliver Phobos ground samples back to Earth.

It's not clear whether or not that capsule could have survived re-entry, but there's virtually no chance that it will ever be found.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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