The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft had been circling Earth since shortly after its launching on Nov. 9, losing a few miles of altitude each day until it fell into the atmosphere. The 13-ton ship was one of the heaviest manmade objects yet to make an uncontrolled plunge back to Earth, though most of its weight was fuel and probably burned up during re-entry.
The vehicle could have crashed almost anywhere, but as with other falling space junk, the odds were that it would hit an ocean.
Col. Aleksei Zolotukhin, a spokesman for Russia’s Aerospace Defense Troops, told the Interfax news agency that the spacecraft, which broke up in the atmosphere, hit the water in fragments around 12:45 p.m. Eastern time.
The crash cut short what was to have been an ambitious two-and-a-half-year voyage to Phobos, one of Mars’s two small moons, and back again. The mission to retrieve the first soil sample from a Martian moon would have been a milestone for Russia. The Phobos-Grunt’s lander was equipped with a small shovel to put about eight ounces of dirt into a tiny capsule to return to Earth.
The mission started with a successful launching to Earth orbit, but the engine that was meant to boost the spacecraft out of orbit and on its way to Mars failed to fire, and scientists on the ground were unable to correct the problem.
Mars exploration has been a consistent goal of the Soviet and then Russian space program despite a history of setbacks. The $170 million Phobos-Grunt craft was the first attempt since 1996, when an earlier Mars probe also failed soon after launching.
Speculating last week about possible causes of the latest failure, the director of the Russian space agency said that Phobos-Grunt might have been hit by an antisatellite weapon from an unspecified source while over the Western Hemisphere and out of direct observation from Russia. He also mentioned possible technical flaws.
Western scientists have dismissed as improbable the speculation by a retired Russian general that a powerful radar antenna in Alaska, intended to study the ionosphere, had zapped the Mars probe.
As Phobos-Grunt broke up and burned on re-entry, the Russian space agency said, as many as about two dozen pieces might have reached the surface, weighing a total of about 400 pounds.