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Space junk en route to Earth

MOSCOW -- A Russian spacecraft designed to burnish the nation's faded space glory in a mission to one of Mars' moons has turned into one of the heaviest, most toxic pieces of space junk ever.

It will come crashing down to Earth in just a few days.

The latest forecast by the space agency Roscosmos has the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe falling out of Earth's orbit Sunday or Monday, with the median time placing it over the Indian Ocean just north of Madagascar. It said the precise time and place of its uncontrolled plunge can only be determined later, and unless someone actually spots fiery streaks in the sky, no one may ever know where any surviving pieces end up.

Space experts agree it's unlikely to pose big risks.

At 14.6 tons, the Phobos-Ground is one of the heaviest spacecraft ever to plummet to Earth, considerably larger than the two defunct satellites that fell to Earth last fall and landed in the water. It's cylindrical and about the size of a van.

Roscosmos predicted that only between 20 and 30 fragments of the Phobos probe with a total weight of up to 440 pounds will survive the re-entry and plummet to Earth.

It's the third satellite to crash out of the sky in under five months: An old NASA 6-ton atmospheric research satellite came tumbling down in September, and a 3-ton German science satellite followed suit in October. But both were well past their prime.

Russia's Phobos-Ground probe is still a mere babe. It was launched in November, and a glitch left it stranded in orbit around Earth instead of bound for Mars to collect soil samples.


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