Scientists grew excited last week as Russia's planned its first interplanetary mission in 15 years. By now, the ambitious mission should be powering through space, toward the Martian moon Phobos.
Instead, Russia's space agency spent Friday discussing uncontrolled reentry scenarios.
Authorities may be looking for someone to blame after a lengthy string of mission failures. According to an Interfax bulletin, an anonymous source indicated that this may force reform in the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and "a number of positions of responsible persons" could face jail time.
As if that news weren't bad enough, this could be an uncontrolled toxic reentry scenario.
Phobos-Grunt -- correctly written "Fobos-Grunt," meaning "Phobos-Soil" or "Phobos-Ground" -- is fully laden with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide; that's ten tons of fuel and oxidizer. The probe itself weighs in at only three tons.
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The majority of the fuel will likely vaporize during reentry, but everyone will be hoping for a splash-down in an ocean (which covers two-thirds of Earth, fortunately), as the wreckage will still be hazardous. There's also a small quantity of radioactive cobalt-57 in one of the science missions housed in the probe -- a fact that will most likely cause a media frenzy.
It is for these reasons that the Russian media is dubbing Phobos-Grunt "the most toxic falling satellite ever."
(At time of writing, there is no official word from the Russian space agency about the Phobos-Grunt situation.)
Though Russian mission controllers are frantically trying to regain control of the craft, it's not looking good. Friday's efforts are widely regarded as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the mission. Other space agencies such as NASA and ESA have offered to assist, but the probe is quickly becoming unrecoverable.
Since Phobos-Grunt was placed in low-Earth orbit (LEO) on Tuesday, and the probe successfully separated from its booster rocket, its attached cruise stage rocket has yet to light up, providing a critical two burns to blast the probe away from Earth to begin its planned 10-month journey to the Red Planet.
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