Toxic Phobos-Grunt Reentry Expected Within Days

The launch of the Phobos-Grunt probe from Kazakhstan on November 8th marked the first Russian Mars mission in 15 years.  Space experts now say that underfunding of the ambitious project may have doomed it from the start.  “Way too ambitious, and way too underfunded, to reach its goal,” says space law attorney Michael Listner, who writes for The Space Review.  All went well for the spacecraft during the launch and injection into a parking orbit around the Earth, but the failure of an orbital boost stage doomed the vehicle to a slow decay through the Earth’s atmosphere until it reenters in mid-January.  The photo at left was taken by Netherlands astrophotographer Ralf Vandeburgh last week through a telescope, and it’s compared to a ROSCOSMOS photo of the craft prior to launch.

Since spacecraft reenter the Earth’s atmosphere all the time, this would not be very newsworthy except for the unusually heavy load of toxic propellants on board this vehicle.  Reports vary somewhat, but indications are that there may be as much as 11 tons of hydrazine-derivative fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer on board.  Both of these are extremely deadly to humans whether dispersed in the atmosphere or in direct contact to the skin.  Due to the enormous quantity involved, there is some concern about where, exactly, the vehicle may reenter over the surface of the Earth.  Predictions have been complicated by autonomous thruster activity on board the vehicle that raised the orbit for a while in November before going silent.  This threw off early predictions of a mid-December reentry and delayed the spacecraft’s death plunge until at least early January.  Precise predictions of reentry locations are unlikely to be published, even though they are now becoming identifiable.  Most of the planet, everything between +/- 51.4 degrees of latitude, falls under the regular ground traces of Phobos-Grunt, and could potentially see some debris.  As for the reentry date, the Russian space agency has predicted January 10-21, 2012, and other experts agree with that estimate.  The current prediction of the spaceflight101.com site is January 15, 2012 at 14:00 UTC +/- 18 hours, as of the very end of the day on the 9th.

The proprietor of this website has done a preliminary simulation, and the official Blog of Monte Cristo prediction at this time is for January 15, 2012 at about 1:00 UTC, which is just after Midnight, early Sunday morning in Western Europe, which is the vicinity of the reentry according to my crude analysis.  This shouldn’t be taken too seriously, because we are 5 days away from the likely burn-up, but the current simulation shows the vehicle’s final flight over France, the island of Corsica, humorously over the uninhabited island of Monte Cristo itself (I’m not kidding), and then finally being scattered over the City of Rome.  If the Spaceflight101 prediction is more correct than mine, then the reentry could occur later in the flight, perhaps over the Pacific Ocean, or potentially anywhere else on the globe.  I should note, however, that their predicted reentry time was 21:00 UTC until just a few hours ago, and they’ve been revising their time earlier, toward mine.  I’ll continue to revise my predictions over the next few days, using much better atmosphere models.  I guarantee that the predicted location will change, and at any rate, given my track record, I think I can say that the safest place on the planet is probably Rome, at this point.

The actual danger of this reentry should not be blown out of proportion, because all spacecraft are most likely to come down over water, and very little of the vehicles survive the fiery descent, anyway.  However, many heavy pieces do survive and strike the ground, like the debris from Skylab that rained down across the Australian outback, or pieces of the UARS satellite that very likely fell over Washington State and Canada, despite the official claim that it happened entirely over the Pacific.  One of the particular concerns with Russian spacecraft is that they contain a lot of titanium, which is strong and light and is almost impervious to the heat of reentry.  Titanium is abundant in Russia, and is frequently used for fuel and gas spheres like the one pictured above that was recovered in Africa.

Clearly, the enormous mass of dangerous propellants on board Phobos-Grunt, combined with the possibility that they are stored in indestructible titanium tanks, makes for a real concern.  Most sources are reporting that the tanks used on Phobos-Grunt are made of aluminum due to cost-cutting measures taken during construction.  This would be good news, indeed, if true.  Aluminum tanks would not survive reentry.  No one is questioning the veracity of this claim, which almost certainly was only discussed after the reentry became a certainty, but one could question it, right?  Since space lawyers have indicated total Russian liability for any damage, there is plenty of reason to think that the tank material is a sensitive topic, at risk of being … manipulated.

So the danger of this particular reentry cannot be completely wished away. In fact, it’s somewhat reminiscent of a James Bond dilemma in Moonraker, in which he had to risk his life to shoot down reentering spheres containing nerve gas.  In the real world, atmospheric entry of hypergolic propellants like Phobos-Grunt’s is usually avoided at all costs.  If possible, all of it is exhausted by thruster firings in orbit.  In the case of the defunct Phobos-Grunt, that can no longer be done.  So we wait.  And watch.

More reading: http://www.spaceflight101.com, http://www.heavens-above.com, http://www.space.com.

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About GruntOfMonteCristo

Fearless and Devout Catholic Christian First, Loving Husband and Father Second, Pissed-Off Patriot Third, Rocket Engineer Dork Last.
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7 Responses to Toxic Phobos-Grunt Reentry Expected Within Days

  1. Zauber says:

    Living in a litigious post-USSR environment, the Ruskies are quick to blame the Dark Side of the Force for their engineering problems. While most may say they are blaming the US, let’s not forget their cultural fear, hatred and mistrust of the Chinese. The Russian whining was generic enough to include Somali pirates. Russia is more than a bit miffed at the Chinese for leaping decades ahead in space efforts with the help of plundered US technology. It appears that China will be on the moon before the Russians (or us for that matter) and the Chinese have an ambitious plan to be on Mars before either the US or Russia. As for the toxic fuels, they are a bother but I don’t see anyone mentioning if the Russians had a radioisotope thermoelectric generator on board this craft. This wouldn’t be the first Russian RTG to plow into the earth after an engineering failure and the Plutonium in it worries me more than the fuels do.

    • Good points, Zauber. I mentioned the RTG in my first post on the Grunt blog, but didn’t mention it here because it’s not a plutonium isotope, and the amount of radioactive material is pretty small. Also, even the U.S. has blown up plutonium RTGs on lift-off once before, and in that case, it was recovered later and re-used on another mission. They’re usually encased in fairly indestructible containers, so that just doesn’t concern me as much as the other chemicals on board PG. Thanks for the comment!

      • Zauber says:

        How come I get some pansy flower atavar here? Anyway, I remember Kosmos 954 and the mess it made. The Russians RTGs were supposed to eject the fuel before rentry so that it could burn up (ha ha) in teh atmosphere before impact but – engineering failure – it landed in the Great White North, the RTG splintered, and the Canadians ended up having a massive GI party. The longer the mission the larger the RTG is and, with the state of Ruskie engineering and their mindset on how ‘micro’ their equipment should be, I’d be interested to see how big it really is considering the systems it had to power. Just a difference of opinion on which stuff provides the most danger, but in the end it could crash in New Jersey and no one would be the wiser.

      • Ain’t that the truth. You could be totally right about the RTGs. I suspect the Russians are lying about the aluminum tanks. Maybe they’re also lying about the tiny quantity of radioisotopes. I should have mentioned that. Go ahead and bring that up on the Tree if you like. In any case, this could be a real mess, and I think they know it. That’s probably why they’re screaming “sabotage” all of a sudden.

        Oh, about the avatar. Sometimes WordPress goes with different default gravatars if you haven’t defined a custom one. Have you thought about uploading a photo for yours?

  2. Zauber says:

    Photo? Full face front? Left side? Right side? I’ll see if the booking sergeant still has an old one. Tree’s too busy earlier painting me as the resident nattering nababob of negativism and seems to have fleeting intertest in Death From Above. I’ll show them though, I’m getting my Harbor Freight guillotine out of the barn and putting an edge on the blade. If it’s activism they want…

    The longer the misison the larger the pellet assembly is. The chalise from the palace has the pellet with the poison and the…no no, wrong movie.

    • Don’t worry Nababob. They’ll get more interested in death from above when it gets closer. I fixed your avatar. Sorry about that. I needed to change a setting to display the same default used on other WordPress sites.

      If you’re wanting to upload an avatar, any photo will do. Most of the time people don’t use pics of themselves, but that’s your choice.

      So, who’s painting you? My only complaint is that you’re wearing me out posting witty comments of yours on the quote wall. Better stop it! 😉 Oh, and that’s new to me about the Russian RTG’s not being encased. Sounds like a bad idea! I wondered how they managed to spray so much material all over Canada like that.

  3. Zauber says:

    My point is that the people who control elections have trainloads of money and professional meat-marketing businesses who sell concepots and manipulate media output to push products down the throats of unsuspecting and increasingly irrelevant voters. No one wants to believe that his fate is not in hois own hands (note: the use ofthe male pronoun does not necessarily I give a rat’s ass about PC). I’m tired of going to Tea Party meetings where the average age is 3-digts and half the memebrs wear aluminum hats. I don’t want to eher about the Bilderberg Group, TLC ninja commandoes or how the Freemasons are suppressing the release of laetrile as part of a Jewish/Welch Corgie plot to take over Six Plags Over Texas. The political situation out there is nasty and dangerous, I haven’t heard so many GIs and ex-GIs talking about heading out to the boonies and setting up shop since the end of Vietnam. Taking this country back, if we even can, is going to be a tough and dirty fight.

    Yes, the capsules and their containers were never designed to re-enter, they were ejected to spread the poison over a larger population. Russians use roughly the same RTG in their spacecraft that they used in their unmanned arctic and sea bouys, they never were one to make two or three things when one could be made to work. I never got a solid mindset on how they worked until I saw my first MIG-21 – enlightenment. Hell, their manned mission systems stayed years behind ours until the early 70s until the NVA shot down and captured a US military pilot who’d worked on the support systems in the Gemini project. NVA shutteled him off to Russia and – poof – just a few short years later the Russian internal capsule systems are clones of ours. I am not sure how much our RTG designs influenced theirs but I know they used as much US tachnology as they could stael in their programs. Our RTGs cores, if the craft was designed to reenter and burn up, were ejected also before reentry. Ruskies just didn’t have the solar cell and battery capabilities we did and had to make do. New solar cells coming on-line for the recon satellites will move home power production way ahead when the developers are done soaking the government and go to mass production with about a 40% efficiency. That will mean fewer RTGs floating around up there.

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