Russian-Chinese 13.2 tonne spacecraft to come crashing to Earth

November 12, 2011 | By | Add a Comment
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At the time of writing this blog post, it is looking highly likely that the joint Russian-Chinese Fobos-Grunt spacecraft currently stranded in low Earth orbit (as opposed to being on its way to explore the Martian moon Phobos) will come crashing to Earth at the end of November (or mid-December at latest). Over the last couple of days, commentators have pointed out that the probe only had approximately two days worth of power available from on-board batteries to rely on (following its launch on 9 November Australian time). A more recent problem is that unofficial reports have indicated that the Russian authorities have not been able to communicate with the probe.

Information sourced from Wikipedia: However, following the planned end of the first burn the spacecraft could not be located in the target orbit. The spacecraft was subsequently discovered to still be in its initial parking orbit, and it was determined that the burn had not taken place. As of 05:00 GMT on 11 November, attempts to establish connection with the probe have been unsuccessful. It has been established that its solar panels have been deployed, giving engineers until 21 November to restore control of the spacecraft. Unless the probe is restarted by that date, it will be no longer possible for it to reach Mars. NORAD forecasts that, unless control over the spacecraft is reestablished, it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on 26 November. On board the probe is 8.3 metric tonnes of highly toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. This is nearly 20 times the amount that was on board the American spy satellite USA-193, which was shot down before reentry by the U.S. in February 2008. Many experts expect that these substances will burn out during reentry, but there is a risk that they will freeze before the orbit of the probe decays, allowing it to survive reentry and reach the surface.

According to, the crash could take place anywhere from 51.4 degrees North latitude to 51.4 degrees South latitude (due to the probe’s launch inclination). That puts all major continents (with the exception of Antartica) at risk.

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This website is maintained by Paul Floyd. I am an amateur astronomer (and school teacher) with 25 years experience (as at 2015) in running a range of education and public astronomy outreach activities. As of January 2015, I have been providing astronomy information via the WWW for eighteen years.