Toxic Russian Mars Lander Stuck in Earth's Orbit
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"If the controllers fail to bring the Phobos-Ground back to life, the tons of highly toxic fuel it carries would turn it into the most dangerous manmade object ever to fall from orbit, Oberg warned.
"About seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he said.
"What was billed as the heaviest interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts to ever fall back to Earth out of control, an unenviable record."
The spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), with fuel accounting for a large share of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin, which has specialized in interplanetary vehicles since the dawn of the space era.
The company also designed the craft for Russia's botched 1996 launch and the two probes sent to Phobos in 1988 also failed. One was lost a few months after the launch due to an operator's mistake, and contact was lost with its twin when it was orbiting Mars.
In contrast with the failures that dogged Soviet and Russian efforts to explore Mars, a succession of NASA's landers and rovers, including Spirit and Opportunity, have successfully studied the Red Planet.
If Russian space experts manage to fix the Phobos-Ground, it will reach Mars orbit in September 2012 and land on Phobos in February 2013. The return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200 grams (7 ounces) of ground samples from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014."