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
The chances that the remnants of the spacecraft would
fall anywhere outside of Australia are "very low,"
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,"
"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
"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,"
When a plutonium-powered Soviet satellite landed in
northern Canada in 1978 there was little problem, he
"The container survived re-entry and the only place
there was plutonium was the immediate area," Logsdon
"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
"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.
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