"Russian scientists are struggling to get the country's first interplanetary mission in 15 years back on track. Should they fail, the probe that was due to head to the Martian moon Phobos may well turn into the "most toxic falling satellite ever."
Following a successful launch from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the subsequent separation of the Phobos-Grunt probe from its booster rocket on Wednesday morning, its own engine failed to generate two impulses which were necessary to direct the spacecraft onto a path to Mars. As a consequence, the probe became stuck in a low transitory orbit above Earth.
Before scientists from Russia's space agency Roscosmos could solve the problem and "reboot" the mission, they would have find out what exactly has caused the failure. Some say a problem with the probe's software is the likely culprit, while others speculate that the worst-case scenario -- a problem with the hardware -- is also possible.
Most issues with the software could potentially be fixed distantly. One of the theories that have been put forward suggests that a problem with the navigation system could have occurred. When launched, spacecraft initially use the sun as the main reference point for navigation, switching later to the stars. Therefore, it is thought the probe could have failed to position itself relative to the constellations.
Should that be the case, specialists say, they could try to upload a software package to the probe, and if everything goes fine, the entire mission could still be put back on track, with a minor delay of a few days.
If the problem turns out to be a hardware failure, the consequences could potentially be disastrous, and not for the space mission alone... 'Most toxic falling satellite'
The Phobos-Grunt probe is loaded with seven tons of highly toxic fuel, which was supposed to propel the spacecraft at various stages of this lengthy and complex mission. For this reason, the probe has already been dubbed as "the most toxic falling satellite ever."
Therefore, if Russian specialists fail to determine and fix the issue and the spacecraft eventually falls to Earth, they may have to come up with a contingency plan to deal with potential hazard to large areas. At the same time, experts say they still have plenty of time to develop an effective plan of action even in this worst-case scenario, to ensure that the falling craft and its toxic fuel pose no threat to people or the environment.
It is almost impossible to predict the exact area where the spacecraft could fall but scientists say it could be anywhere between 52 degrees North and 52 degrees South -- an enormous territory, yet this is exactly where our planet's most-densely populated areas are located."
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