Grunt work

UPDATE: 1/15/2012 11:30AM PST The probe is down, but see how the BBC fouled up the reporting of it here -Anthony

Look up in the air, it’s a bird, its a plane, no it’s Phobos-Grunt! Video follows.

An artist's impression (M. Carroll) of Phobos-Grunt re-entry into Earth's atmosphere - Image:

From Sky News: An out of control Russian spacecraft could crash land on southern England sometime this weekend, scientists have warned.

The minibus-sized Phobos Grunt is loaded with 11 tonnes of fuel that was supposed to take it to Mars and one of its moons.

But the on-board computer failed shortly after take-off last November and the spacecraft’s orbit of the Earth has been getting lower ever since.

Chief engineer at the UK Space Agency Professor Richard Crowther said it is expected to explode as it enters the atmosphere, scattering debris along a 200km track – anywhere between the M4 corridor and the Falkland Islands.

But he told Sky News that fragments are most likely to fall into the sea: “If you look at the Earth from space, most of it is covered by water.

“The UK is very small by comparison. The probability of it falling in such a small area is very, very low.

“It doesn’t keep me awake at night.”

The Russian space agency Roscosmos estimates that between 20 and 30 fragments, weighing 200kg in total, will make it back to the Earth’s surface.


It doesn’t look good:

Image from


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Rur roh….
The question I have is not so much about the debris – but the 7 tons of hydrazine on board….in aluminum container. I’m thinking ‘explosion’ – but can that occur in the upper reaches of the atmosphere?
Further – one has to keep in mind that specific components of this craft were DESIGNED to survive re-entry into the atmosphere…. They’re going to land – its merely a question of where….

Should be renamed “Grunt-o-Phobia”. Simple enough.


But you can never be too careful though. Give me a $100 MM grant and I will develop a model for where it will hit based on tree rings from Siberia. Predictive? Nah. Lucrative, you betcha. So what if my paper will come long after the thing has hit. Think of our children and grandchildren. Or at least think of mine. I could leave them a lot of taxpayer money with that kind of grant.

Amazing that with the “stuff” that has fallen out of orbit, that it hasn’t hit a major city.

I’ve been tracking this thing for a couple of hours.
At time of posting 90 miles up, 17,500 mph over Peru.

David, UK

Matthew W says:
January 14, 2012 at 11:51 am
Amazing that with the “stuff” that has fallen out of orbit, that it hasn’t hit a major city.

Honestly, it’s really not.

Bugger, I just painted our Southampton (England) House… 🙂


Matthew W.: Here is a map of USA “urban areas”… that is, all densely-populated (>1,000 people per square mile) areas with population of more than 10,000. Notice how little of the nation is taken up by urban areas, much less large cities. In the rest of the world’s land area the situation is similar, if not even less urbanized.

Martin Brumby

‘A major city’ be blowed.
The House of Commons?
Now you’re talking. Fingers crossed……

David Davidovics

Too bad it failed. It sounds like it would have been a very intersting mission.

Bill H

IF one of the hydrazine canisters survives reentry and hits a populated area… they is going to have some explaining to do…
its always amazed me that they do not keep a self destruct system operational on a redundant system to minimize such a problem…

Matthew: Did you all of a sudden forget that it must have an EF rating to have enough “bad luck” to hit a major city?

Luther Wu

Duck and Cover

cui bono

“The UK is very small by comparison. The probability of it falling in such a small area is very, very low.”
Famous last words: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this r….”

Claude Harvey

“Gruntmobiles” are notoriously chunky vehicles.

Luther Wu

To give some idea of speed it’s, at time of posting, now over the northern tip of the Caspian Sea
at 103 miles up (yes, it’s gained height) 17,465 mph.
Shows it’s really getting knocked about up there !

Gareth Phillips

It’s a pity. All that wonderful technology, all those great tools. Who will join me in saluting a star mangled spanner?


I am reminded of a bit of sci-fi I read a decade or so ago, where a nuclear-powered satellite was due to fall to Earth (pretty sure it was an anti-nuclear writer). One of Great Britain’s newspapers (in the book) shows a picture of England, with a target ring over one of its cities. This, of course, causes all kinds of howling from the people living in said city.
Later, the satellite comes down, and Explodes- right in the heart of said city.
Hold onto your seats over there.

It’s been nice to know you guys. Goodbye.

cui bono

Bill H says (January 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm)
“its always amazed me that they do not keep a self destruct system operational on a redundant system to minimize such a problem…”
Good idea, but if there’s an explosion in orbit, it will produce thousands of pieces of shrapnel. The Space Station is already having to duck and weave it’s way through orbit to avoid bits of junk. The Chinese created a nightmare cloud of lethal bits when they blew up a satellite with an ICBM 5 years ago.
The only safe way of disposing of redundant space systems is to do a controlled de-orbit. This needs a rocket motor. Which, unfortunately on Phobos-Grunt, is exactly the thing that doesn’t work!

Bill H

simply SMASHING…. 🙂

Bill H

cui bono says:
January 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm
Shrapnel is one thing but bus sized derbies is quite another..
Maybe it’s time for a smaller rocket that can attach and push it from orbit? expressive? Yes.. or we could just use our shuttles as garbage trucks… I’m sure there is a market for collecting space junk..

Love the painting. Straight out of a 1960’s sci-fi magazine cover.

Mick J

I have seen it noted elsewhere that Mars have a factory in Slough, located along the M4 corridor. So it could land on Mars after all. 🙂
Talking of Slough, John Betjeman wrote a poem about the place. He may get his wish. 🙂
There is a follow up poem extolling it virtues.
“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!”


Now imagine the fun we’ll all have when they start putting PV in LEO.

D. Patterson

If a Space island Geode station had already been put into place as planned, the whole spacecraft could have been captured and repaired before a deestructive reentry into the atmosphere.

Shows how we need launch on demand spacecraft with astronauts. Rendevous with errant spacecraft, lassoo or catch in net, organise controlled de-orbit in unpopulated area. We could call it the Space Patrol. Or maybe the US Coastguard would like another job?

cui bono

@Bill H
There’s bound to be money in it Bill. Let’s give it some thought (assuming I survive the weekend here in the ‘M4 Corridor’!). Incoming! Hard hats! Duck and cover!

Mike McMillan

So now we’re gonna see if gravity can heat things up. 🙂

Quote without comment. Well, except for this line and maybe subsequent comments.

The five-tonne Nasa UARS satellite hit earth in September, and was recorded by an amateur astrologer tumbling over France.


“anywhere between the M4 corridor and the Falkland Islands.”
This makes no sense. The Falkland Islands are off the coast of Argentina…

MattN says:
January 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm

“anywhere between the M4 corridor and the Falkland Islands.”
This makes no sense. The Falkland Islands are off the coast of Argentina…

A reentry estimate that’s off by +/- 25 minutes will do that.
These are tough to predict, people do well to hit the orbit number a day in advance.
Hmm, the Falklands are just south of 51° South Latitude, so they are in the danger area, at least I think that’s the limit.

EO Peter

No need to panic, the probability it fall on inhabited location are so minuscule, practically inexistant!
In fact, it is as probable as a space debris falling near Cosmonaut Street…

Ric I don’t understand your explanation at all.
The M4 corridor and the Falkland Islands are in separate hemispheres.


Russia hints at foul play in its space failures
By Str | AFP – Tue, Jan 10, 2012
The head of Russia’s beleaguered space programme hinted on Tuesday that foreign powers may be behind the string of failures that struck his agency in the past year.
Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told the Izvestia daily he could not understand why several launches went awry at precisely the moment the spacecraft were travelling through areas invisible to Russian radar.
One of Russia’s most high-profile recent failures involved the November launch of a Mars probe called Phobos-Grunt that got stuck in a low Earth orbit and whose fragments are now expected to crash back down on Sunday.
Popovkin was named the head of Russia’s space agency in April after its previous chief was sacked in the wake of an embarrassing loss of three navigation satellites during launch.
Yet the problems only multiplied under his watch as Russia lost several more satellites and also saw its Progress cargo ship experience its first-ever failure on a mission to the International Space Station.
The Mars mission setback was followed last month by the loss of the Meridian communications satellite. Its fragments crashed into the Novosibirsk region of central Siberia and hit a house ironically located on Cosmonaut Street No injuries were reported but the 50-centimetre (20-inch) fragment blew a hole in the home’s roof.
Russians planned on scooping up some Phobos Grunt (dirt) and “”RETURNING””………..How many stages in yur rockettes does that require. Group W thinks that the Russians were that comet Lovejoy that went a sun diving and came back………………out??? Just a zig zagging its way through the suns atmosphere at 87,000 miles 120,000 kilometers above the solar surface. wow I mean WOW……………

D. Patterson

The breakup and debris trail crosses all hemispheres.

Arizona CJ

The hydrazine issue (and the other fuel is nitrogen tetroxide, also nasty) is a major one. If it’s liquid in aluminum tanks, it shouldn’t reach the ground. But… do we know the tanks are aluminum? Nope… only on Russia’s say-so, and they have a long history of being rather creative with the truth when things go wrong (such as Mars 96 coming down in Peru, and they claimed it was in the pacific, plutonium and all). The Russians are fond of titanium tanks, and nitrogen tetroxide corrodes aluminum unless totally anhydrous. The other issue is the fuel may have frozen by now, in which case it may very well reach the ground.
The orbital inclination is about 51 degrees, and perigee is over the southern hemisphere at about 41S, so we see it’s altitude increasing and then decreasing during it’s 87 minute orbits.
Now, for a climate-related observation: It’s VERY low; the only reason it’s still up there at all is the earth’s thermosphere is rather contracted at the moment, due to diminished solar activity.


This image taken Jan 1st, of Phobos Grunt doesn’t look like 13.5 tonnes or even appear like it may have 11 tonnes of fuel left.
Check out comet Lovejoy going into the solar atmosphere, tail accelerating out the top of the frame brightly and little comet lovejoy coming back out the bottom right in this video.
From the sungrazers website,

Eduardo Ferreyra

“If you look at the Earth from space, most of it is covered by water.”
And if you don’t look it is still almost covered with water.
And the real name of the so called Falklands Islands is Islas Malvinas, as they were named “Malouines” by French whalers from Saint Malo in the 15th Century…


Ric, there is at least 5000 miles between the Falklands and the M4 corridor…

Mac the Knife

Gareth Phillips says:
January 14, 2012 at 12:45 pm
“It’s a pity. All that wonderful technology, all those great tools. Who will join me in saluting a star mangled spanner?”
I will, Gareth!
All across the central and south Atlantic, the natives will be singing “Jose, Can you see?”


@Katabasis: Yes, that is how inexact the prediction is, they cant even pick which hemisphere it will land it. Do you get that? is presenting updated reentry estimates.

John Brookes

And they don’t know where, because picking the precise time that it will “get caught” by the atmosphere is impossible.


it’s settled then ?


Pity it malfunctioned, it would have been an interesting space mission to follow. Poor ol’ Russians, they don’t have a lot of luck with missions to Mars. They’ll have to get a witch doctor in and break that hoodoo. 😉

MarkW says: January 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

Chicken! 😉
And don’t say I’m being a turkey …


I can think of a building in East Anglia where they can use a knock on the noggin to knock some sense into them.