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Phobos Grunt

Top 5 Facts: Biggest satellite crashes

Phobos Grunt

5. Phobos-Grunt

Phobos Grunt
Credit Michael Carroll

This 14.5-ton Russian spacecraft, which also carried China’s first attempt at a Mars orbiter, was intended to retrieve soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos (‘grunt’ means ‘soil’ in Russian). Unfortunately, it experienced a failure immediately after launching in early November 2011 and became stuck in Earth orbit. It crashed into the Pacific Ocean on 15 January 2012.

4. Compton Gamma Ray Observatory

Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (NASA)

The 17-ton Compton Gamma Ray Obsevatory (CGRO) was the second of NASA’s “Great Observatories”, following the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. It was launched on 5 April 1991, but experienced a gyroscope failure nine years later. It did not possess the capability to be repaired in orbit like Hubble and thus NASA carried out a controlled re-entry on 4 June 2000, the first it had ever attempted.

3. Salyut 7

Salyut 7

On 7 February 1991 the Soviet space station Salyut 7 came back into Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled re-entry after spending nearly nine years in space. At the time of the re-entry a spaceship called Cosmos 1686 was docked to the station, giving a combined weight of 44 tons. The station had been unmanned since 1986 following a series of technical problems, including a power failure that had caused ice to form on the space station’s interior walls. It re-entered over Argentina on 7 February 1991, scattering debris over the town of Capitan Bermudez.

2. Skylab

NASA’s first space station, Skylab, weighed 69 tons. It was launched on 14 May 1973 and completed a variety of Earth observations, but in early 1979 NASA discovered that the station was falling into a lower orbit. Amid a huge media storm Skylab re-entered Earth on 11 July 1979. The majority of the spacecraft burnt up in the atmosphere but parts of it fell in Western Australia. Read more about Skylab’s demise here.

1. Mir

The largest man-made object to ever fall back to Earth was Russia’s Mir space station. Weighing a hefty 135-tons, this giant space station was de-orbited by engineers in 2001. Its re-entry was controlled to ensure that the majority of the space station burnt up in the atmosphere and the remainder crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The station had remained operational since its launch on 20 February 1986, setting a number of records along the way including the longest stay by a human in space (Valeri Polyakov, 437.7 days).