Russia Mars probe 'crashes into Pacific': military
Russia believes fragments of its Phobos-Grunt probe which spiralled back to Earth after failing to head on a mission to Mars crashed Sunday into the Pacific Ocean, a spokesman for its space forces said.
The splashdown marks an inglorious if spectacular end for the Phobos-Grunt probe which Russia launched in November and hoped would scoop up a sample from Mars' largest moon Phobos and bring it back to Earth.
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"According to information from mission control of the space forces, the fragments of Phobos Grunt should have fallen into the Pacific Ocean at 1745 GMT," spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin told the Interfax news agency.
There was no immediate comment from Russia's space agency Roscosmos, which throughout the day, as the probe approached Earth, had given wildly different predictions about where it could land.
Zolotukhin said that the space forces had closely followed the probe's course. "This has allowed us to ascertain the place and time of the fall of the craft with a great degree of accuracy," he told Interfax.
According to the ITAR-TASS news agency, the probe should have splashed down 1,250 kilometres (800 miles) west of the island of Wellington off the coast of Chile.
A landing in the ocean would be a huge relief for Russia after earlier reports suggested it could crash into the territory of South America, possibly Argentina.
However in a sign that the final crash site had yet to be confirmed, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russian ballistics experts as saying Phobos-Grunt had splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Brazil.
Rather than heading out on the expedition to Mars, Phobos-Grunt after its November 9 launch instead became stuck in an Earth orbit that became lower and lower as it becomes increasingly tugged by the Earth's gravity.
The unmanned $165 million vessel is one of the largest objects to re-enter the atmosphere since Russia brought down the Soviet-era Mir space station in 2001.
Sky gazers reported the gold-coloured vessel emitting a bright orange glow as it traversed the globe in an eastward direction between London to the north and New Zealand to the south.
The craft is loaded with 11,000 tonnes of toxic fuel -- enough to take it to Phobos -- and a Chinese satellite it had been due to put in orbit around the Red Planet under a landmark deal with Beijing.
Roscosmos predicted that only 20 or 30 segments weighing no more than 200 kilogrammes (440 pounds) in total will survive the explosive re-entry and actually hit the Earth's surface.
Russian and NASA scientists have downplayed the risks posed by the fuel, predicting that it should burn up in the atmosphere before reaching the Earth's surface.
The fuel is stored in tanks of light aluminium -- not the sturdy titanium used by the now-retired US space shuttle -- with a relatively low melting point.
The ignominious ending for the probe provides a bitter reminder for Russia of the prowess it has lost in the half-century since Yuri Gagarin's historic first space flight in 1961.
The ambitious project had initially aimed to revive Russia's interplanetary programme and prepare the way for a manned mission to Mars.
The accident represents one of the more high-profile mishaps in a year littered with unprecedented setbacks for the once-vaunted Russian space programme.
It struck less than three months after an unmanned Progress supply ship bound for the International Space Station crashed into Siberia.
Russia also lost three navigation satellites as well as an advanced military satellite and a telecommunications satellite in the past year.
by Stuart Williams © 2012 AFP
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