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Pieces of Fobos-Grunt probe fall in Pacific, but verification needed -- ESA

January 16, 2012, 18:56 UTC+3

European experts have agreed that pieces of Russia’s Fobos-Grunt probe have fallen in the south Pacific

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PARIS, January 16 (Itar-Tass) —— European experts have agreed that pieces of Russia’s Fobos-Grunt probe have fallen in the south Pacific, but this needs to be verified.

European Space Agency (ESA) specialists were closely watching the probe entering the atmosphere and their calculations indicate that it fell in the Pacific, a spokesman for the ESA mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, said on Monday, January 16.

“An international campaign to assess the imminent atmospheric reentry of Russia's Phobos–Grunt Mars craft has been put in place by the 12-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. The participants include NASA and Roscosmos, and the campaign is being coordinated by experts in ESA's Space Debris Office,” ESA said.

“ESA experts are working with international partners in a coordinated prediction campaign focused on Phobos– Grunt, a Russian Mars mission that is expected to largely burn up in Earth's atmosphere in the next few days,” it said.

Orbit data for Fobos–Grunt were provided mainly by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and the Russian Space Surveillance System. In addition, European radars based in Germany and France were also providing orbit calculations. Based on this, ESA was issuing reentry prediction bulletins to its Members States.

According to its Russian owners, Fobos–Grunt has a mass of 13.5 tonnes, including about 11 tonnes of propellant, and a body size of 3.76 x 3.76 x 6.38 m, with solar wings spanning 7.97 m.

The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) said earlier that the debris might fall within the interval of January 15-16, but the likelihood will be the highest at 21:51 Moscow time. It said the pieces might fall in an area stretching from 51.4 degrees latitude north to 51.4 degrees latitude south.

Fobos-Grunt, which means “Phobos-Soil”, is a 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 into an initial Earth orbit of 206 x 341 km. The injection into an Earth-escape trajectory to Mars failed, and the spacecraft was declared lost by Roscosmos on December 13, 2011.

Funded by 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 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.

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.

On January 2, 2012, a comprehensive reentry prediction campaign for Fobos–Grunt was begun by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a technical forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to human-made and natural debris in space.

In recent years, IADC members have developed a data exchange network specifically supporting the assessment of potentially hazardous reentries, which allows members to enter and extract orbit data in order to refine reentry predictions.

IADC member agencies include ESA, NASA, European national agencies and the Russian, Chinese, Canadian, Japanese, Ukrainian and Indian space agencies.

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