Falklands, Cardiff lie beneath track of rogue Phobos-Grunt

'Debris will probably hit remote unpopulated area' - UKSA


The UK space agency has warned that Russia and Kazakhstan will be responsible for any damage resulting from the probe Phobos-Grunt plummeting to Earth, and outlined in detail those locations at risk: that is, most of the inhabited world apart from remote northern and southern regions.

Space boffins from Roscosmos and the European Space Agency are in the process of trying to rescue the craft, which made it into orbit on November 9 but then failed to set off on its mission to Mars and the Martian moon Phobos.

If their attempts to restart her engines fail, Phobos-Grunt and attached bits and pieces will eventually lose altitude and drop out of orbit towards the surface of the planet.

Any damage from the hurtling debris would be the responsibility of Russia as the launching state, and possibly Kazakhstan as well since the craft took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, according to international treaties, the UK space agency said.

However, neither Ukraine, which provided the rocket, nor China, which has a satellite orbiter (Yinghou-1) hitching a ride with the probe, would be liable.

The agency also said that Phobos-Grunt's orbital inclination is taking it in a track over the Earth extends from 51.4 degrees N - the line of latitude that runs approximately from Cardiff to London - and 51.4 degrees S, as far as the Falklands Islands. Or in other words, the debris could come down anywhere between those two lines.

However, it's not quite time to flee to Scotland, or indeed the Midlands, yet.

The ESA has managed contact with the probe and now so has the Baikonur cosmodrome as well.

Yesterday, the ESA got telemetry data from the craft that might have told it why the engines failed to fire to send Phobos-Grunt towards Mars, but it was unable to decode it.

Today, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti is reporting that Baikonur also received the telemetry data and this time the message was clear.

The data showed that the radio equipment in Phobos-Grunt was operational and it was exchanging information with the main flight computer and the onboard control system.

If the boffins can figure out what went wrong with the control system and fix it, the probe could still be sent on a mission to an asteroid or Earth's Moon, or even just brought in to land in a controlled descent instead of a fiery ball.

However, if the experts can't regain control, the chances of any debris from the craft's re-entry damaging anything on Earth is slim.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin has already assured the public that the 7.5 metric tons of fuel onboard the ship will ensure that it gets vaporised on re-entry, leaving little to fall down.

Even if there were any scraps left, there's a much greater chance of them dropping harmlessly into the sea or a remote unpopulated area. ®


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