Malfunctioning Russian probe spotted hurtling through space backward (+video)
Veteran satellite watcher Thierry Legault filmed the wayward Russian Phobos-Grunt probe, which was intended to collect soil samples from a Martian moon but is instead heading toward a destructive plunge back to earth.
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While the re-entry event will be a spectacular light show, "you'd have to be really lucky to see it," Krag added.Skip to next paragraph
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"I would think that the chance of somebody seeing it is very low. If one does see it, it'll look like every other re-entry," he said. "Fragments would be falling off from time to time. But in addition to this, you might see little explosions now and then, making it brighter for a few microseconds and then relieving a few more fragments."
The most likely Phobos-Grunt component to survive the fiery plunge to Earth is the probe's descent space vehicle — a sample-return capsule outfitted with a thermal protection coating. If all had gone well with the Mars mission, that nose-cone-looking hardware was designed to beat the heat of re-entry, then make a hard landing without a parachute in the Sary Shagan missile test range in Kazakhstan.
New re-entry target
The Phobos-Grunt re-entry is a new test target for the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, Krag confirmed. The committee (IADC for short) is an intergovernmental agency that coordinates research related to orbital debris in space, as well as man-made objects that re-enter the atmosphere.
Since 1998, the IADC has performed re-entry prediction tests. Data-sharing between countries has helped sharpen skills for calculating the re-entries of spacecraft, rocket stages, even hardware discarded from the International Space Station.
"This object will be followed by the IADC. It is a test object of this year," Krag said. A number of agencies will take part, he added, with European, U.S. and Russian sensors providing coverage of the Phobos-Grunt fall from space.
"We can possibly do a prediction just right before it re-enters … good, timely coverage of the re-entry event," Krag said.
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.
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