Russian flight controllers are working to salvage a 15-ton Mars spacecraft that is stranded in a very low orbit around Earth after a botched launch Tuesday.
The probe was expected to be on its way to the Martian moon Phobos to retrieve some soil samples and return them to Earth for analysis. The mission, called Phobos-Grunt ("grunt" is Russian for "soil") was Russia's first attempt at planetary exploration since its failed Mars 96 spacecraft.
An engine firing to send Phobos-Grunt toward Mars never occurred, stranding the spacecraft in a fast and low orbit around Earth that comes as close as 128 miles above planet.
At that altitude, it is only a matter of time before friction from the upper fringes of the atmosphere drags the spacecraft back toward Earth. Most of its mass is toxic rocket fuel, which likely would incinerate at some point during the high-speed descent through the atmosphere.
The spacecraft also contains a small amount of radioactive cobalt-57 in one of its science instruments. It is not known how much of the spacecraft would survive the plunge through the atmosphere or where any debris would land.