A Soviet probe launched nearly five decades ago is expected to crash down to Earth’s surface within the next few years, according to a report published Monday on Space.com.
Launched on March 31, 1972, the Kosmos 482 spacecraft was supposed to voyage to Venus as part of the Soviet Union’s Venera program. Its sister probe, Venera 8, blasted off four days earlier, and eventually touched down on Venus in July 1972, becoming the second lander to accomplish this feat. The USSR remains the only nation to have landed operational probes on the surface of Venus.
If Kosmos 482 had successfully left Earth orbit for Venus like its sister, it would have become known as Venera 9. But a clock on the spacecraft malfunctioned, causing the engine to cut out before it could fire and propel the probe onto its interplanetary trajectory, according to NASA.
Kosmos 482 broke up into parts and some of its fuel tanks ended up crashing into a farmland community in Ashburton, New Zealand on April 3, 1972. The “Ashburton space balls,” as they became known, damaged crops but did not injure anyone, says the New Zealand Herald.
But while parts of the spacecraft quickly deorbited, the 1,000-pound spherical descent and landing capsule survived. That core payload has been orbiting Earth once every 112 minutes for nearly 47 years.
A subsequent Soviet mission launched in 1975 took the name Venera 9 instead. It captured the first images of Venus’s surface—or any alien planet for that matter.
Skywatchers and scientists have been keeping tabs on the remains of Kosmos 482 as it swings between altitudes of 125 and 1,700 miles above our planet. Based on observations of its slow orbital decay, this probe will end up crashing down to Earth within the next two to three years.
Because the probe was designed to withstand the searing conditions of Venus’s atmosphere and surface, it is likely to survive atmospheric reentry and arrive back on Earth relatively intact.
Thomas Dorman, a satellite tracker based in Oklahoma, told Space.com’s Leonard David that he estimates that the capsule will return to Earth by mid-2020.
"The descent craft will survive a re-entry with no problems," Dorman said. "It would be funny if it was spotted coming down and the parachute has deployed [...] but I am sure the batteries to fire the pyrotechnics to release the parachute have died long ago!"
While this impending crash is a bit unnerving, the odds of Kosmos 482 hitting a populated area are low. Hopefully, its final remains will splash down in the ocean, as opposed to crashing into rural New Zealand again.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.