In November 2011, the Russian space agency launched the much-anticipated Mars probe called Phobos-Grunt (which means “Phobos dirt” or “ground”), which would go to the Red Planet, soft-land a probe on the tiny moon Phobos, and return a sample of the surface to Earth. Unfortunately, the booster that would take it from Earth orbit into a Mars-intercept trajectory failed to fire, stranding the spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Atmospheric drag has doomed the mission; it will most likely burn up sometime in the next two weeks.
Phobos-Grunt is visible to the naked eye as a bright star if it happens to pass overhead. Astronomer Thierry Legault, an expert in nabbing incredible images of objects in orbit (and no stranger to this blog!), traveled to Nice, France to observe it, and (as usual) got great video of it:
You can actually see detail in the probe; he provided a helpful picture to make it more clear:
The solar panels and other parts are pretty obvious.
Like UARS and ROSAT last year, Phobos-Grunt is making an uncontrolled re-entry, and it’s not entirely clear where it will fall. Odds are it’ll be over water, since the majority of Earth’s surface is ocean. The predictions I’m seeing look like it’ll be on or around January 15th. The actual location of re-entry won’t be known pretty much until the moment it comes down; it’s moving at several kilometers every second, so being off by a few minutes in the time means being off by thousands of kilometers in the location! There are a lot of variables involved too, including the orientation of the satellite (which changes the drag it feels from the atmosphere), solar activity (a solar storm can make the atmosphere puff up, speeding up the date of the spacecraft’s demise), and so on. I’ll write more information as I hear it.
In the meantime, you can check to see if Phobos-Grunt will pass over your location and you can see it; I suggest using Heavens-Above.com.
Image and video credit: Thierry Legault, used by permission. Slight edit of image done by The Bad Astronomer to compress it horizontally.