Actual Location Of Crashed Russian Probe Still Unknown
January 16, 2012

Actual Location Of Crashed Russian Probe Still Unknown

Russian officials said on Monday that they still could not say for certain where the Phobos-Grunt space probe landed upon its return to Earth, despite reports over the weekend that it had landed in the Pacific Ocean.

According to MSNBC reports Sunday, the satellite's re-entry was believed to have occurred at approximately 12:45 Eastern time, and the debris zone was believed to be 775 miles — or 1,250 kilometers — west of Wellington Island in the South Pacific.

That information was said to have been obtained from Russian space officials, and the RIA-Novosti news service quoted Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin as saying that fragments from Phobos-Grunt had "crashed down in the Pacific Ocean."

However, on Monday, Zolotukhin told the Associated Press (AP) that he was estimating the splashdown location based on calculations, and that no official eyewitness reports had been received.

The AP added that Anatoly Shilov, the deputy head of the Russian national space agency (Roscosmos), told state media that the organization assumed that the probe had broken up somewhere above Brazil.

On Sunday, the European Space Agency (ESA) posted a message on their Twitter account claiming that  Phobos-Grunt had landed in the Pacific Ocean at approximately 18.45CET. Their tweet said that several sources had confirmed the information, and that Russian, American, and European experts were "currently checking details."

A note on their website, posted January 16, said that "an update on Phobos-Grunt reentry from ESA's Space Debris Office, including an analysis on the reentry time and location, will be available shortly."

The Phobos-Grunt probe was to travel to the Martian moon of Phobos, where it would land, collect soil samples, and return them to Earth sometime in 2014. The AP called it “one of the most daunting interplanetary missions ever,” as well as one of the “most expensive and the most ambitious” Russian space missions in recent years.

However, the spacecraft got stranded in Earth´s orbit shortly after its November 9 launch, when its boosters failed to properly ignite. Multiple attempts to re-fire the satellite by both Roscosmos and European Space Agency (ESA) personnel failed, and ultimately ground control members completely lost contact with the 13.5 ton, $165 million dollar probe.

According to, Russian officials had predicted that just 20 to 30 total fragments of Phobos-Grunt, weighing a combined 440 pounds, would survive the re-entry process. Despite initial concerns that the toxic fuel onboard the vehicle would have become frozen and survive Earth´s atmosphere, it too was predicted to explode during re-entry, avoiding a possible environmental disaster.

Early last week, Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told reporters that the failure of the Phobos-Grunt launch and other Russian satellite failures over the past year may have been the result of sabotage by foreign countries, perhaps even the United States.

“I wouldn´t like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can´t be excluded,” Popovkin said in an interview with Izvestia daily, adding that it was not clear why several launches experienced problems at the precise instant that they began travelling through areas invisible to Russian radar.

“It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are travelling through what for Russia is the ℠dark´ side of the Earth – in areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings,” he continued, acknowledging that the Phobos-Grunt mission was also risky because it involved a project that was underfunded and whose design dated back several years.

“If we did not manage to launch it in the window open in 2011 for a Mars mission, we would have had to simply throw it away, writing off a loss of five billion rubles ($160 million),” Popovkin, who took over as the head of Roscosmos in April, added.


Image Credit: NITs RKP, NPO Lavochkin, Roscosmos


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