MOSCOW, January 15 (Itar-Tass) — Fragments of the Fobos-Grunt interplanetary probe, which have not burnt in dense atmospheric layers, are to fall in the Pacific off Chile on January 15, according to Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
Experts say it most likely that the fragments will fall to Earth at about 21:51 Moscow time in an area with the following coordinates: 42 degrees latitude south and 80 degrees longitude west.
“As of January 14, the probe was at an orbit with the following parameters: maximum altitude 174.2 kilometers, minimal altitude 149.7 kilometers,” the press service of the Federal Space Agency said. “"The window of its fragments’ fall is between January 15 and January 16, 2012, with tentative midpoint on January 15 at 21:51 Moscow time. Specialists are constantly monitoring the Fobos-Grunt descent.”
Earlier, specialists said it might fall somewhere in the southern Atlantic.
"Probe fragments consisting of heat-resistant metals - in all 20 to 30 pieces - and weighing not more than 200 kilograms may reach the ground," a Roskosmos official said, "The fuel the probe is carrying will burn in dense layers of the atmosphere at an altitude of approximately 100 kilometers."
"The Cobalt-57 radio-isotope source installed in one of the Fobos-Grunt instruments (Mossbauer spectrometer) has a mass not exceeding 10 micrograms, and a small half-life period, so it will not cause radioactive contamination. Years of international statistics prove that descending spacecraft almost always fully burn in dense atmosphere, while their remaining fragments cause no harm, as a rule,” the official added.
Fobos-Grunt, which means “Phobos-Soil”, is a 13,505-kilogram sample return mission to Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. Launched on November 9, 2011 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, aboard a Zenit-2SB carrier rocket, it is in a low Earth orbit awaiting resolution of technical problems that have prevented it from continuing its mission.
Funded by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and developed by the Lavochkin Association and the Russian Space Research Institute, Fobos-Grunt is the first Russian-led interplanetary mission since the abortive Mars 96. The spacecraft was also carrying the Chinese Mars orbiter Yinghuo-1 and the tiny Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment funded by the Planetary Society.
The spacecraft was scheduled to reach Mars' orbit in September 2012 and land on Phobos in February 2013. The return vehicle, carrying up to 200 grams of soil from Phobos, was expected back on Earth in August 2014.
If it had succeeded in achieving these aims, Fobos-Grunt would have become the first spacecraft to return a macroscopic extraterrestrial sample from a planetary body since Luna 24 in 1976, and the first successful Russian interplanetary mission since 1986.
Contact with the mission was lost soon after the launch and it was uncontrollable since then.
The Lavochkin Association is a Russian aerospace company that develops and manufactures spacecraft such as the Fregat and Ikar rocket upper stages, satellites and interplanetary probes. It is a contractor for a number of military programmes. The company's most notable project at the moment is the Fobos-Grunt probe.