China wrote off its orbiter, a tiny craft called Yinghuo-1, as a total loss in mid-November. But the Planetary Society has said that its project — the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, or LIFE — may survive re-entry, since it was tucked inside Phobos-Grunt's return capsule.
It may even be possible to salvage some science out of LIFE, researchers say, but only if the return capsule survives and is recovered.
The sky is falling
Phobos-Grunt's fall may add to a growing perception that the sky is falling, for it was the third uncontrolled re-entry of a big spacecraft in the last four months.
NASA's 6.5-ton UARS satellite came down in September, and the 2.7-ton German satellite ROSAT followed one month later. Both crashed over stretches of empty ocean, causing no casualites. (Nobody is known to have ever been injured by a piece of man-made space debris.)
While they're temporally linked, the three spacecraft falls differ in significant ways. UARS and ROSAT, for example, were decommissioned satellites that finished their science work years ago and then spiraled downward in slowly decaying orbits. Phobos-Grunt, by contrast, lived fast and died young without accomplishing its mission.
Also, Phobos-Grunt was much heavier than either UARS or ROSAT. At 14.5 tons, the Russian Mars probe was the most massive satellite to fall uncontrolled to Earth since NASA's 85-ton Skylab space station in 1979.
Russia's 135-ton Mir space station remains the largest single man-made object to re-enter our atmosphere. Engineers de-orbited Mir in a controlled fashion in 2001.
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