Russia believes fragments of its Phobos-Grunt probe, which spiraled back to Earth after failing to head on a mission to Mars, crashed on Sunday into the Pacific Ocean, a spokesperson for its space forces said.
The splashdown marks an inglorious if spectacular end for the Phobos-Grunt probe, which Russia launched in November last year and hoped would scoop up a sample from Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, and bring it back to Earth.
“According to information from mission control of the space forces, the fragments of Phobos Grunt should have fallen into the Pacific Ocean at 17:45 GMT,” spokesperson 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 1,250km 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.
STUCK IN ORBIT
Rather than heading out on the expedition to Mars, Phobos-Grunt, after its Nov. 9 launch, became stuck in an Earth orbit that became lower and lower as it became increasingly tugged by the Earth’s gravity.
The unmanned US$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-colored 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.
Roscosmos predicted that only 20 or 30 segments weighing no more than 200km in total would survive the explosive re-entry and actually hit the Earth’s surface.