When the German ROSATsatellite fell from the sky back in October–right on the heels of NASA’s UARS satellite, which came crashing down in September–we were told that we wouldn’t have to worry about any more falling satellites for awhile. Then, Russia launched Phobos-Grunt, and suddenly your carefree days of not worrying about high-speed orbital debris speeding through the atmosphere and slamming into random places across the planet were over. The doomed Russian Mars probe is coming down, probably next Sunday.
Phobos-Grunt, as you may recall, was launched into Earth orbit in November, from which point it was supposed to fire its auxiliary engines and set a course for Mars. That never happened, and the orbit of the crippled spacecraft has been decaying ever since as Russian mission handlers have scrambled in vain to save it. With hope of recovery gone, Russian space authorities have now named January 15th as the likely re-entry date for Phobos-Grunt.
As with UARS and ROSAT, much of Phobos-Grunt will burn up in the atmosphere. And like its recent predecessors, some of it will not. Twenty to 30 pieces of Phobos-Grunt will likely survive re-entry and actually reach the surface. That could happen virtually anywhere between 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south latitude.
That’s a lot of territory. But take heart: much of it is water, and during the last two re-entry events no one was hurt, or even close to being hurt. Your chances of meeting your demise as Phobos-Grunt meets its demise are extremely slim.