The uncontrolled re-entry of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is expected to occur early next week.
This satellite re-entry underscores the importance of space situational awareness and the need for data sharing, as well as the role of international cooperation to minimize the threat posed by large re-entering space objects.
Phobos-Grunt was hurled into space last Nov. 8 (Nov. 9 in Moscow) by the Russian space agency. The spacecraft was built to land on Phobos, one of two moons circling Mars, then snare samples for return to Earth in 2014.
However, the spacecraft failed to boost itself out of Earth orbit and onto an interplanetary trajectory. Since that time, the orbit of Phobos-Grunt has been slowly decaying.
There is a convergence of tracking predictions that indicates Phobos-Grunt will likely re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in the January 15-16 time period.
Although there is a large amount of toxic fuel onboard, the aluminum construction of its fuel tanks makes it highly likely that they will rupture with that supply of fuel dissipating harmlessly in the atmosphere.
Some fragments of Phobos-Grunt are expected to survive atmospheric re-entry and reach the Earth’s surface, but they are unlikely to pose any threat. The Russian government is working with the European Space Agency and the U.S. military to track Phobos-Grunt. Procedures are in place to notify the appropriate authorities in the event that the spacecraft re-enters over a populated area.
Secure World Foundation experts are available to discuss orbital debris, space situational awareness, space traffic management, space sustainability, and associated topics.