A spacecraft is about to crash-land on our planet.
Last November Russia launched an incredibly ambitious mission to Mars, called ‘Phobos-Grunt’. (Phobos is the larger of Mars’ two little moons; ‘Grunt’ is the Russian word for soil.) The spacecraft was to have landed on Phobos, collected “soil” samples, and returned to Earth, giving planetary scientists a unique window into the processes that formed the solar system.
Unfortunately, Phobos-Grunt never made it out of Earth orbit: a booster rocket failed to ignite, and doomed the craft to eventual crash-landing.
As with many astronomy stories, I learned about this from Phil Plait’s excellent blog Bad Astronomy. His post on Phobos-Grunt includes some absolutely amazing photos from the amateur (i.e., expert) astronomer Thierry Legault. Legault specializes in imaging spacecraft from the earth, and his entire ouvre is well worth exploring. (He has a photo of the Space Shuttle Endeavor transiting the sun on one of its last orbits, among other stunners).
It turns out that there is a website that tracks the movements of objects in orbit, and allows you to predict when and from where they’ll be visible. Heavens Above‘s predictions for Phobos-Grunt over San Francisco show that there is one minute or so this Saturday evening where the dying spaceship may be visible. Because of the vagaries of the atmosphere and the craft’s tumbling through it, these predictions are not very precise. (In fact, it’s not at all clear where and when the probe will re-enter and crash.)
Still, I plan to be with the kids, looking Southwest at about 6:20 Saturday night to see if I can get a glimpse. I’ll report my observations next week, and hope any readers here do the same.
Update: Since the path of Phobos-Grunt is so chaotic, predictions change almost by the hour. Saturday the 14th is now not the best time to look for the craft. Instead, look to the West on January 17th at 5:43 pm, to follow a track moving to the Northeast. This will certainly change in the coming days, though. Your best bet is to keep an eye on Heavens Above.