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Crash down!

Last November, Russia launched the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft to explore Phobos, one of Mars's two moons. But the probe never reached its destination.

After its launch, Phobos-Grunt's rockets malfunctioned and failed to lift it out of low Earth orbit. The craft circled Earth for two months. During that time, atmospheric drag slowed the probe and caused it to drop lower and lower until it re-entered the atmosphere. As the 15-ton spacecraft sped toward Earth at 8 kilometers (5 miles) per second, it began to break apart and burn up.

People on the ground had little to fear from the falling probe. About 70 percent of Earth's surface is covered in water, so re-entry debris usually lands in the ocean. The remaining pieces of Phobos-Grunt, for example, landed in the Pacific. "In the entire history of space exploration, nobody has been injured by a piece of re-entry debris," says Eugene Stansbery of NASA's orbital-debris program.

THE PHOBOS-GRUNT SPACECRAFT

Phobos-Grunt was designed to collect and return soil samples from Mars's moon Phobos. It fell back to Earth before even beginning its three-year mission.

RETURN CAPSULE FOR SAMPLES:

Designed to survive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere

WEIGHT: I

13,505 kilograms (15 tons)

LAUNCH DATE:

November 8, 2011

FUEL TANKS

SIZE COMPARISON

BIGGEST SPACECRAFT RE-ENTRIES

The largest vehicle to crash to Earth was the 135-ton Mir space station, purposely pulled from orbit in 2001. Create a bar graph of the next largest uncontrolled re-entries, shown here, by weight.


                                                 Salyut 7/
                   Shuttle                        Cosmos
                  Columbia         Skylab          1686

NATION          United States   United States      Russia

RE-ENTRY DATE       2003            1979            1991

VEHICLE TYPE    Space shuttle   Space station   Space station

WEIGHT            100 tons         85 tons         44 tons

LENGTH          37 m (122 ft)   36 m (118 ft)   31 m (102 ft)
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Title Annotation:EARTH: ASTRONOMY; crash of Phobos-Grunt spacecraft
Author:Crane, Cody
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Apr 16, 2012
Words:289
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