Michael Carroll
This artist's concept shows fuel from Russia's failed Mars probe Phobos-Grunt burning from a ruptured fuel tank as the spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere.
By
updated 1/25/2012 3:54:55 PM ET 2012-01-25T20:54:55

Space junk experts have confirmed when and where the wayward Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt re-entered the atmosphere and crashed back to Earth.

The doomed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft fell from space on Jan. 15, and crashed near the South American coastline — with any debris probably falling into ocean waters, according to a European Space Agency update released Wednesday.

"Probably" can also mean that some free-falling fragments might have reached land. However, there have been no confirmed reports of debris reaching land.

"While this was an uncontrolled re-entry, the location of the potential impact area was largely over ocean, with a correspondingly low probability of any detrimental effects," Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, said in a statement.

Klinkrad told Space.com that the associated re-entry location of Phobos-Grunt "is in the vicinity of the South American coastline."

When asked about the delayed publishing of the Phobos-Grunt re-entry data, which came more than a week after the spacecraft actually fell, Klinkrad said, "I cannot comment."

[In a follow-up interview with msnbc.com, Klinkrad acknowledged that the delay in publication was "not the norm," and suggested that future re-entry estimates should typically come more quickly.]

An ocean grave for Phobos-Grunt
Scientists make spacecraft re-entry predictions based on the assumption that a spacecraft remains intact and reaches an altitude of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) above Earth's surface. Most of the spacecraft debris would typically impact Earth prior to that location, since most debris is "lighter" — that is, they have a greater area-to-mass ratio than the spacecraft as a whole.

Following Phobos-Grunt's fall from space, the U.S. Strategic Command confirmed a re-entry time of 12:46 p.m. ET as the spacecraft was flying about nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the South American coast at a location of 46 degrees south and 87 degrees west.

"This corresponds to a pass at 10 km altitude about seven minutes later — very close to ESA's prediction," according to the ESA update.

That seven-minute time delay is presumed to be roughly how long it took for Phobos-Grunt to fall from a 50-mile (80-kilometer) altitude to an altitude of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).

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Marooned Mars probe
Phobos-Grunt tipped the scales at nearly 14 tons, with the bulk of that weight consisting of toxic unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide fuel.

This unused rocket propellant remained onboard the spacecraft due to a malfunction that prevented Phobos-Grunt from firing its engine and beginning the journey to Mars. The failure left the probe marooned in Earth orbit instead.

Russian experts that assessed the re-entry survivability of Phobos-Grunt said before the craft’s destructive fall that about 20 to 30 fragments would reach Earth’s surface. It was estimated that less than 200 kilograms — some 400 pounds of hardware — would survive the plunge.

Phobos-Grunt launched into space on Nov. 8 (Nov. 9 in Moscow) on a mission aimed at landing on Phobos, one of two moons circling the Red Planet. Grunt means "soil" in Russian, and the probe was built to collect samples from Phobos and return them to Earth by 2014.

Mars probe's likely crash zone
In addition to the Phobos-Grunt re-entry data provided by the U.S. Strategic Command, other information on the spacecraft's fall to Earth was gleaned from European sources, including France and Germany. All of these readings were used to refine the re-entry estimates, ESA officials said.

"Within the expected uncertainties, the prediction has been largely confirmed by observations," they added.

As the errant Phobos-Grunt circled Earth prior to its demise, ESA officials sent regular updates to European civil protection authorities, the space agency said.

The U.S. Strategic Command operates a network of radar and other sensors — including space-based assets — that collectively track objects in orbit as well as scan for objects that plunge into Earth's atmosphere.

The final report regarding the Phobos-Grunt re-entry was posted Tuesday on the U.S. government's Space-Track.org website that provides access to U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance data.

That website shows that the failed Russian probe (classified as Object 37872) made 1,097 orbits of Earth prior to its re-entry at 17:46:00 GMT, plus or minus one minute. The posting shows a predicted decay location of 46 degrees south, 273 degrees east.

[Amateur observers questioned why the re-entry information was missing from the Space-Track site for so long. They noted that the information gap was at odds with normal procedure. Klinkrad told msnbc.com that it was up to the U.S. Strategic Command to discuss that aspect of the Phobos-Grunt postmortem, but he emphasized that the re-entry data was always available to authorities. "It was not available to the outside world," he acknowledged.]

A global campaign
An international group known as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, or IADC, took an active role in predicting the fall of Phobos-Grunt. This is a technical forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to human-made and natural debris in space.

Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos)
This Russian-language map depicted the latest re-entry prediction for Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe for Jan. 14, 2012. The map indicated the 14-ton spacecraft could crash somewhere off the coast of South America on Jan. 15, which it did.

IADC is an interagency group with member agencies that include ESA, NASA, European national agencies and the Russian, Chinese, Canadian, Japanese, Ukrainian and Indian space agencies.

Since 1998, a number of targets have been used for IADC re-entry campaigns. The Phobos-Grunt re-entry was the third major spacecraft to fall from space in recent months. It followed the crash of a dead German X-ray space observatory in October and the re-entry of NASA's defunct Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite in September.

Data-sharing between countries has helped to sharpen skills to more accurately calculate the re-entries of spacecraft, rocket stages and even discarded hardware from the International Space Station.

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.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.

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

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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