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Mars probe expected to fall within hours

Problems occurred right after liftoff

November 17, 1996
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EST (2300 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Russian space probe that was headed for Mars will fall to Earth Sunday, likely hitting somewhere in central or eastern Australia, according to U.S. National Security Council official Robert Bell.

The chances that the remnants of the spacecraft would fall anywhere outside of Australia are "very low," Bell said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said latest reports were that the out-of-control Russian Mars space probe could land in the Timor Sea between Australia and Indonesia.

The Mars probe, which failed soon after launch Saturday night, carried four small radioactive plutonium-powered energy generators, or "batteries," which were to power robotic landing vehicles.

Russian space official have told U.S. officials that they believe there is no danger of radioactive contamination, Bell said.

"We talking about a very modest amount of plutonium," he said.

"Nevertheless, in what is considered to be the extremely unlikely event that one or more of the batteries break open, the United States is prepared to offer all necessary assistance to any nation to deal with any resulting problems," he said.

The White House said the probe is expected to reenter the atmosphere at about 1 a.m. (GMT), which is around noon in Australia Monday and 8:00 p.m. EST Sunday in the U.S.

The U.S. Space Command, known as SPACECOM, has been tracking the probe since it become trapped in Earth's orbit and will continue to refine its prediction, Bell said.

"SPACECOM believes the size of the probe is large enough to give pieces of it a chance of surviving re- entry, though most of the spacecraft will burn up in the atmosphere before impacting," Bell said.

President Clinton, vacationing in Hawaii, has been in touch with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

U.S. space expert John Logsdon said the canisters of plutonium pose very little threat to human life.

"I don't think you can totally rule out concern, but the power systems that use plutonium as a fuel are designed specifically for this kind of situation," said Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

"If there is a failure and they re-enter the atmosphere they are intended to stay intact so that the plutonium doesn't get spread into the atmosphere," Logsdon said.

When a plutonium-powered Soviet satellite landed in northern Canada in 1978 there was little problem, he said.

"The container survived re-entry and the only place there was plutonium was the immediate area," Logsdon said.

"They've been used very frequently," he said. "There have been reactors re-enter with no problem in the past. You can't say the cause for alarm is zero, but I think it's pretty low."

The main concern from this failure is for NASA officials who are depending on the Russians to provide equipment for the international space station now in the works, Logsdon said.

"That is a broader concern for the long range," he said.

"We've made Russia an intimate partner in the space station program and are depending on Russian hardware for the success of the program," Logsdon said. "I think we need to be very sure that the quality control, the ability of the Russian industry to produce in its current environment is adequate."

The Mars probe, carrying scientific equipment from the U.S. and 20 European countries, had been scheduled to reach Mars in September 1997.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Mars Mission icon Mission Mars special section
November 1996

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