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Russian Spacecraft Expected To Crash Into Earth This Weekend

There are two stories about space junk today: First, the AP reports that the International Space Station had to fire its engines to move out of the way of some space junk.

"NASA officials said debris from an old U.S. private communication satellite would have come within three miles of the orbiting outpost on Friday had the station not changed its orbit," the AP reports.

Second is the more interesting story: A failed Russian spacecraft is scheduled to crash into Earth this weekend. As we reported in November, Phobos-Grunt was headed to Mars but instead stalled in Earth's orbit, as Russians struggled unsuccessfully to fire its rockets.

Scientists can't really predict where exactly the spacecraft will fall, so North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia are still possible crash sites. The Washington Postreports:

"'It's not possible to say where the thing is going to fall down,' said Heiner Klinkrad, head of the orbital debris office at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany, in an interview Friday.

"The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, expects 500 pounds of the nearly 15-ton craft to survive re-entry, with the rest incinerating during the screaming re-entry. The agency's latest prediction shows it crashing into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of South America.

"But that prediction can — and most likely, will — change.

Scientists have worried about this spacecraft because it still has all its fuel onboard. But Canada's CBC reports that Russian scientists expect all of the 11 tons of fuel on board will burn up upon reentry.

The CBC also reports that the chances of the probe hitting someone is low. Most of Earth is water, so there is a three in four chance it will land in the ocean.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.