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Russia's Phobos-Ground Mars probe expected to fall to Earth in Jan

December 16, 2011 |  3:43 pm

Phobos-grunt, an unmanned Russian spacecraft is expected to plummet to earth in January 2012.

Nobody knows for sure when the unmanned Phobos-Ground spacecraft will plummet to earth, but you can expect it to be sometime around Jan. 9 -- give or take five or 10 days. The reentry is expected to be sometime between Jan. 6 and Jan. 19, but the time window should narrow as we get closer to the actual event.

It will be a fiery ending for Russia's troubled spacecraft, which was launched in November and was supposed to be heading on a dust-and-rock-gathering mission to Phobos -- one of the two moons that orbits Mars. Instead, the spacecraft's thrusters malfunctioned and the probe got stuck in a low orbit around Earth.

Russia's space agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency tried to gain contact with the probe, but only had limited success. On Dec. 9, ESA gave up its efforts and Phobos-Ground was all but officially dead in the water. 

The BBC reports that Phobos-Ground weighed 13 tons at its launch, but most of that weight was the fuel that would have taken it to Mars. Now that fuel is expected to burn up during reentry. Roscosmos said it expects only about 200 kilograms of the spacecraft to make it down to earth. Because 70% of our planet is water, the likelihood is that whatever pieces do make it down here will plunge into the water, and not hit land at all.


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Photo: Technicians work on the Phobos-Ground probe. Credit: Associated Press / Russian Roscosmos space agency