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A Failed Soviet Venus Probe Might Just Crash Back to Earth This Year, So Heads Up

Illustration for article titled A Failed Soviet Venus Probe Might Just Crash Back to Earth This Year, So Heads Up

One of the lesser-known achievements of the Cold War-era Space Race is the Soviet successes in landing probes on the incredibly harsh and unforgiving surface of Venus, which has temperatures that can reach a hellish 870 degrees Fahrenheit (465 degrees Celsius) and atmospheric pressures 90 times that of Earth. Despite these infernal conditions, the Soviets managed to land 14 functioning probes (the U.S. just managed one) and landers to the surface. Cosmos 482, however, was not one of these, because a rocket malfunction trapped it in Earth’s orbit. But it may be coming home soon.

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Illustration for article titled A Failed Soviet Venus Probe Might Just Crash Back to Earth This Year, So Heads Up

Cosmos 482 was launched on March 31, 1972, just a few days after its sister probe, which became Venera 8, was launched to Venus. Soviet probes would usually have a generic Cosmos name at launch and only receive their official mission name when successfully out of Earth orbit. Cosmos 482 would have been Venera 9 if it had made it to Venus, but, of course, it didn’t.

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Illustration for article titled A Failed Soviet Venus Probe Might Just Crash Back to Earth This Year, So Heads Up

What happened was the “escape stage Block L” engine—the rocket stage designed to propel the probe out of Earth orbit and on to Venus—cut off prematurely at 125 seconds due to an equipment failure, which effectively stranded the probe into a highly elliptical orbit around Earth, with a maximum distance of around 6,093 miles and a minimum of around 126 miles.

Over the years that orbit has decayed, and now seems to range from 1,700 miles to 125 miles. It also seems that at some point early on, an explosion took place, which separated the spacecraft into at least two parts, one of which re-entered the atmosphere and one that’s still in orbit.

Illustration for article titled A Failed Soviet Venus Probe Might Just Crash Back to Earth This Year, So Heads Up
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While it’s not exactly certain what part of the spacecraft is left in orbit, independent observers have noted what appears to be a sort of oblong shape, though it’s not really clear what is actually up there.

The landing module of the Venera probes, seemingly photographed at a disco
The landing module of the Venera probes, seemingly photographed at a disco
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Sources do seem to think that part of what is still in orbit includes the lander itself, which is what makes this particular bit of space junk so interesting.

That descent craft was designed to withstand re-entry into Venus’ atmosphere; even after spending nearly half a century in space, such a lander should be more than capable of withstanding an Earth re-entry, which means a 1,091 pound chunk of vintage space hardware will very likely survive re-entry and slam into Earth.

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I suppose there’s a chance its parachutes are still functioning, but I wouldn’t really count on it.

No one is really certain exactly where or when the remains of Cosmos 482 will land, but everyone seems to agree it’ll be sooner than original estimates of somewhere between 2023 and 2025.

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Images of the Venus surface from Venera 9
Images of the Venus surface from Venera 9

One good thing about all of this is that it reminds us about some really tough and interesting hardware and exploration from the Space Race; a landing on Venus with an operating spacecraft remains impressive to this day.

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I guess the downside is that one of these impressive spacecraft might crash into your garage. It’s unlikely, but maybe just keep an eye out, all the same.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

I know it’s not practical, and it’s a tough sell in this financial climate, but rather than a continuing bombardment of Mars with orbiters and landers, I’d like someone to take a crack at another Venus landing, just to get more than we ever got out of the Soviet missions. Yeah, I know, hot as hell, nothing survives for long. Reference Huygens Titan mission as proof of modern day short term shelf life for current landers, but still, wouldn’t a Venus landing be a worthy goal, to push our current space landing and survival abilities to the next level, and frankly also be a nice planet change from Mars or am I flying solo and blind on this one about the enormity of the task in today’s world.