MOSCOW — A failed Russian probe designed to travel to a moon of Mars is expected to fall on Washington DC.
The Russia probe will come crashing down within hours, likely in a shower of fragments that survive the fiery re-entry.
The White House and The Capitol are being evacuated at this moment.
The unmanned Phobos Ground is one of the heaviest and most toxic space derelicts ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts say the risks are minimal as its orbit is mostly over water and most of the probe’s structure will burn up in the atmosphere anyway.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said the Phobos-Ground will crash between 4pm and 6pm EST.
“The resulting risk is significant,” said Prof. Werner Plinkrod, Head of The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office that is monitoring the probe’s descent.
Plinkrod predicts that between 20 and 30 fragments of the Phobos probe with a total weight of up to 440 pounds will survive the re-entry and pummel Washington, DC.
“It’s very odd that it would fall on Washington DC of all places, but that’s just the way it happened,” said Plinkrod.
Thousands of pieces of derelict space vehicles orbit Earth, occasionally posing danger to astronauts and satellites in orbit, but as far as is known, no one has ever been hurt by falling space debris.
The Phobos-Ground weighs 14.9 tons, and that includes a load of 12 tons of highly toxic rocket fuel intended for the long journey to the Martian moon of Phobos. It has been left unused as the probe got stuck in orbit around Earth shortly after its Nov. 9 launch.
Plinkrod says all of the fuel will burn up on re-entry, a forecast supported by calculations done by NASA and the ESA. He said the craft’s tanks are made of aluminum alloy that has a very low melting temperature, and they will burst at an altitude of more than 100 kilometers.
“These tanks are expected to release the fuel above 100 kilometers, and then the fuel is going to burn in the atmosphere and later the tanks are going to burn themselves as well,” Plinkrod said in a telephone interview from his office in Berlin.
The space era has seen far larger spacecraft to crash. NASA’s Skylab space station that went down in 1979 weighed 85 tons)and Russia’s Mir space station that deorbited in 2001 weighed about 143 tons. Their descent fueled fears around the world, but the wreckage of both fell far away from populated areas.
The $170-million Phobos-Ground was Russia’s most expensive and the most ambitious space mission since Soviet times. The spacecraft was intended to land on the crater-dented, potato-shaped Martian moon, collect soil samples and fly them back to Earth, giving scientists precious materials that could shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.
Russia’s space chief has acknowledged the Phobos-Ground mission was ill-prepared, but said that Plinkrod had to give it the go-ahead so as not to miss the limited Earth-to-Mars launch window.
The Obama Administration is not blaming the Russians for the failed probe.
“This happened because of George Bush,” said Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary.