Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Same Satellite Story, Only Different

So Russia's errant Phobos/Grunt Mars Probe atop it's do-nothing Zenit2SB41 rocket is predicted to reenter Earth's atmosphere in the next week or so. Following on the heels of ROSAT and UARS, this monthly Space Junk Fall should be "Old Hat" by now...well, Phobos/Grunt is a little different.

UARS and ROSAT were "old" satellites, dead and used up that orbited for a decade after their service lives ended before succumbing to the tug of Earth's gravity and burning through the upper reaches of the atmosphere to fall into an Hard Hats required.

The Phobos/Grunt/Zenit package is brand spankin' new...but faulty. It launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome flawlessly on it's first stage, and inserted the spacecraft into a preliminary orbit. Two autonomous firings of the main propulsion rocket were supposed to send the whole shebang off to Mars, but something went blast off, no phone home, no answer when hailed from Mission Control...uh oh...

Russian controllers have been trying to regain contact and control since they knew they had the problem...bad luck then...sorry 'bout that...

This reentry won't be a simple as UARS and ROSAT reentries...this package is still loaded with 8 tons of highly toxic hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer.

Though I never thought to look for a Legal Treatise on Reentering Space Junk Liability, this time I found exactly that when searching the web for some Phobos/Grunt intel. It's an interesting read that I highly recommend. As much as I prefer to remain naive about legal stuff that doesn't concern me personally, I'm glad someone's doing the heavy lifting on this question. Here's the story from Space Safety Magazine.

The article cites a similar reentry in 2008. America's National Reconnaissance Office launched a secret satellite named USA-193 on December 14, 2006. Similar to the Phobos/Grunt event, the satellite was boosted into a stable orbit where contact was lost within hours. After much head scratching and behind the scenes diplomacy, when the reentry became inevitable in 2008, President Bush approved a shoot-down plan to destroy the satellite and it's hydrazine-filled fuel tank.

Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on the whole USA-193 saga. Amateur Satellite Watchers predicted the reentry window, and a missile launched from a NAVY Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser destroyed the USA-193 about 133 nautical miles over the Pacific Ocean.

Of course controversy followed...Russia was upset, suggesting the exercise was a test of the U.S. missile defense program. The satellite's destruction was only the third on record. China successfully tested it's Anti-Satellite Weapon in 2007, knocking out a defunct Chinese WeatherSat in Polar Orbit, and the US shot down P78-1 an American Solar Observing Satellite to test the ASM-135 ASAT Anti-Satellite Missile in 1985.

We've got just about one week to dispatch Phobos/Grunt. I'm pretty sure somebody will destroy the thing. It's loaded with 8 tons of the hydrazine/nitrogen tetroxide propellants. USA-193 carried 880 pounds.

CorduroyPlanet is on Phobos/GruntWatch. I'll post news as I find it until the bird is down.

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