Monday, November 14, 2011

Crippled Russian Spacecraft Carries Toxic Payload

Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt
Russian scientists are struggling to restart engines in the Phobos-Ground Probe  which failed to leave orbit following launch on November 8, 2011. The ship, containing tons of dangerous rocket fuel, could drop out of orbit and fall to earth as soon as a few days from now or could linger in decaying orbit until around Christmas next month.

Tons of unspent rocket fuel and an uncontrolled re-entry could create a very dangerous combination depending on where the craft comes down and the state of the fuel.

If the fuel does not freeze, but remains liquid, it should burn up harmlessly before it reaches the ground. But if the toxic mixture freezes, it could survive re-entry and strike the Earth intact. According to James Oberg, formally with NASA and now a space consultant,
“About seven tons (6.4 tonnes) of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever”
Signs of trouble began when Russian scientists lost contact with the probe and requested amateur astronomers worldwide to report any sightings. The craft was spotted by South American astronomers trapped in a low orbit, trailed by its' failed booster engines.

Software engineers have attempted upgrades, bug fixes and reboots of the system, but according to this report, they have so far been unable to communicate with the craft and hope is fading that a solution will be found before the batteries fail.
Mars Moon Phobos
 Engineers are hoping that if the spacecraft falls back to Earth, it will land in the ocean. Compared to the six ton UARS Satellite, which dropped out of orbit in September, 2011, this failed spacecraft and booster engines weighs over fourteen tons, most of which is unspent fuel.

The ship was headed for Mars moon Phobos on an ambitious mission  to return to Earth next year with about seven ounces of soil samples from the Martian moon. Instead, this is the just latest and most dangerous, in a very long string of failed missions to Mars by the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Article first published as Crippled Russian Spacecraft Carries Toxic Payload on Technorati.

images:
phobos ground probe: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cebit_2011-fobos-grunt_together_with_upper_stage.jpg
phobos: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phobos_PIA10369.jpg 

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