A Russian space probe, which was designed to boost the nation’s pride on a bold mission to a moon of Mars but got stuck in Earth orbit instead, came down in flames Sunday, showering its fragments into the Pacific Ocean south of Chile’s coast.
The fragments of the Phobos-Ground landed in water 1,250 kilometres west of Wellington Island off Chile’s southern coast, the Russian military Air and Space Defence Forces said in a statement carried by the country’s news agencies.
The military space tracking facilities were monitoring the probe’s crash, its spokesman Col. Alexei Zolotukhin said.
The $170 million craft was one of the heaviest and most toxic pieces of space junk ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts said the risks posed by its crash were minimal because the toxic rocket fuel on board and most of the craft’s structure would burn up in the atmosphere high above the ground anyway.
The Phobos-Ground was designed to travel to one of Mars’ twin moons, Phobos, land on it, collect soil samples and fly them back to Earth in 2014 in one of the most daunting interplanetary missions ever. It got stranded in Earth’s orbit after its Nov. 9 launch, and efforts by Russian and European Space Agency experts to bring it back to life failed.
Prof. Heiner Klinkrad, Head of The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office that was monitoring the probe’s descent, said the craft didn’t pose any significant risks.
“This one is way, way down in the ranking,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in Berlin, adding that booster rockets contain more solid segments that may survive fiery re-entries.
Thousands of pieces of derelict space vehicles orbit Earth, occasionally posing danger to astronauts and satellites in orbit, but as far as is known, no one has ever been hurt by falling space debris.