Radioactive Russian satellite could plunge to Earth in December

November 14, 2011MOSCOWAs Russian engineers battle to regain control of an ailing Mars moon probe stuck in Earth orbit, the chances of salvaging the spacecraft’s ambitious mission appear to be dwindling, according to Russian news reports. Attempts to contact the beleaguered Phobos-Grunt spacecraft overnight Thursday (Nov. 10) have failed, and the spacecraft could fall back to Earth around Dec. 3, a Russian space industry spokesman told the country’s Ria Novosti news service. “The spacecraft repeatedly passed over the Baikonur station and other Russian and foreign points of space communications during the night. There is no news yet,” the Ria Novosti quoted the unnamed spokesperson as saying. Russia’s official Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) has not posted an update on Phobos-Grunt’s status to its website since Nov. 9, one day after the probe launched into space from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. –Space
Legal liabilities and risk assessment: The reentry of Phobos-Grunt, like the reentry of UARS and ROSAT, presents the potential to cause damage on the surface of the Earth, but in contrast to the other two spacecraft, Phobos-Grunt presents a more dangerous scenario. It is possible that fuel within the spacecraft’s tanks could survive reentry, which potentially makes Phobos-Grunt a greater threat to the public than the reentry of the USA 193 reconnaissance satellite, which was shot down by an American SM-3 missile in 2008 to avoid an uncontrolled fall back to Earth.  Most experts believe the fuel will likely stay liquid if the probe explodes at an altitude of about 80 kilometers (50 miles). However, if some of the fuel is frozen it could survive reentry and be released on impact.  If surviving fuel tanks from the spacecraft impact on land or, worse, in a populated area, the resulting contamination could cause significant damage to the environment as well as to persons and property. In addition to the potential for contamination from surviving fuel, there is also concern about the cobalt-57 onboard the spacecraft, which is intended as a gamma ray source for the probe’s soil spectrometers. While the amount of material is reportedly small, its mere presence raises the specter of Cosmos 954 and its contamination of an area in the Canadian Northwest 1979. –Space Review
contribution by Amy P.
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17 Responses to Radioactive Russian satellite could plunge to Earth in December

  1. kristoffer94 says:

    so for example, if it impacting in America, can the radioactivity spread over to Europe or? will it be worse than the Fukushima?
    and If it impacting in Europe, can it be spreading over the whole Europe, If so
    Well, what I’m going to say, going with mask the whole time, as the chinese and japanese people do?

    And one more question, can it be worse than Tsjernobyl?


  2. Irene Carmichael says:

    Well isn’t this just great. Not only do we have to worry about being hit in the head by space debris, now we have to worry about radioactive fallout. (sighing)

    Well, time to bake some cupcakes and maybe find some warm sand to stick my head in while I try to convince myself that everything is okie dokie. (sarc)



  3. moondancerjulie says:

    Also, a great article written about the microbes that were being transported to Phobes as part of the The Planetary Society LIFE experiment.

    “The problem is that missions can fail, releasing pieces that land in unexpected places. (phobes carries Bacillus subtilis, Deinococcus radiodurans, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, seeds of Arabidopsis thaliana, Haloarcula marismortui, and tardigrades [microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals known as water bears) For instance, the NASA 1999 Polar Lander as well as the 1988 Russian Phobos 2 spacecraft and the 2003 UK Beagle 2 likely crashed on Mars, dispersing their respective cargoes. When the Columbia Space Shuttle broke apart in 2003 upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, it included containers of microorganism that were strewn along with other shuttle debris during its fiery breakup.”


  4. What for do they want to send Bacteria’s up in the space?


    • Niebo says:

      The bacteria are being sent in order to test the “transpermia” hypothesis –- “the possibility that life can travel from planet to planet inside rocks blasted off one planetary surface by impact, to land on another planetary surface. For example, if a rock on Earth contained life and were blasted off Earth, could it survive until it reached Mars? Or, if life existed on Mars, could it have been transported to Earth? The Planetary Society experiment will test the ability of life to survive the interplanetary voyage by flying organisms for several years through interplanetary space in a simulated meteoroid.”

      Reminds me of skipping rocks across water….


  5. Niebo says:

    I ran across this story elsewhere a couple of nights ago and something about it disturbed me, so I started looking into it. The fuel aboard, Unsymmetrical DiMethylHydrazine (UDMH), is combined with an oxidizer, Nitrogen Tetroxide. According to ChemEurope, UDMH is “toxic, a carcinogen and can explode in the presence of oxidisers. During the 1980s there was concern about the levels of UDMH in various foods being a cancer risk, especially for apple juice.” It is a derivative of Hydrazine, which is “highly toxic and dangerously unstable, especially in the anhydrous form. Symptoms of acute exposure to high levels of hydrazine may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edema, seizures, and coma in humans. Acute exposure can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system in humans.” According to the same company, Nitrogen Tetroxide reacts with water to form nitric acid, a known component of smog and acid rain .

    According to a November 1980 report from the Air Weather Service in regards to Titan missile emergencies, the Short-term Public Emergency Limit (SPEL) for Nitrogen Tetroxide is 5ppm for ten minute exposure but only 2ppm for sixty minutes (p 84). Exposure limits for UDMH are 100ppm and 30ppm, respectively (p 87).

    At The National Librabry of Medicine, a study recorded in Patty’s Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology suggests that exposures to Nitrogen Tetroxide of 100 ppm for sixty minutes result in pulmonary edema and death. The cause is the corrosive nature of the chemical, which destroys the tissues in the lungs. In low-level exposures, symptoms, coughing and difficulty breathing, may not appear for hours to days afterward.

    In Spacecraft Maximum Allowable Concentrations for Selected Airborne Contaminants: Volume 5, data suggests that exposure to 3ppm of UDMH for 1 hour can cause negative CNS symptoms in humans (table 10-6). While no humans participated in the studies cited therein, concentrations of 860 ppm for 1 hour were lethal to dogs, while a range of lesser exposures produced numerous negatives, seizures, anemia, liver damage (10-7).

    It appears that the oxidizer is the more volatile of the two, and I have read several accounts that claim the satellite holds as much as ten tons of fuel at a 50-50 ratio. One site, and only one that I have found, suggested that there may even be radioactive cobalt 57 aboard. Either way, my hope is that it all vaporizes upon re-entry and makes for a pretty post-Thanksgiving fireshow…or that it lands in downtown Tehran.

    (Geetings to you, Alvin, all,
    I just found your site last week, and I have been blown away by the posts and moved by the
    responses. For some time I have been “on my own” doing research to figure out what the heck is going on, all the while not really wanting to believe what it seems to point to. The flip side is, I am a misfit. This world makes no sense to me and never has, like it’s a joke and I didn’t hear the punchline…a whole bunch of times, and I am encouraged to discover that…you guys appear to be misfits, too! Hoo-ray for Jesus freaks!



  6. Tim says:

    Interesting that Phobos-Grunt is also carrying a Chinese satellite.


  7. Seems that Chicken Little might have been correct – The Sky is falling! Not to make light of this Alvin, but we have done this to ourselves. Ever since mankind wanted to build the Bable Tower, we have been over reaching… trying to be as gods! This manmade stuff has a limited lifespan and is bound to either wear out or malfunction. Let us pray please that they can ensure the safety of the people where it may reenter and land.


  8. Susan says:

    Alvin-Whats the truth as to the liquid (highly toxic mix of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine fuel) freezing and causing harm…apparently its seems credible. A quote from the article attached explains. Any updates on when the spacecraft is due to hit earth? Thanks.
    “The Russians are hoping the fuel will stay liquid when the probe comes down, harmlessly exploding about 50 miles above ground. But experts like James Oberg, a NASA veteran who now works as a space consultant, think the fuel could freeze, surviving the fiery re-entry and causing an environmental disaster on impact. ”


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