The Soviet Cosmos 482 Venus probe is en route to hit the planet between the end of 2019 and mid-2020 at the latest. The spacecraft, which launched into space at the height of the Cold War in 1972, failed to escape Low Earth Orbit after an engine malfunction. Cosmos 482 has since drifted aimlessly around the planet but this will change when the Earth’s gravity drags it down. According to amateur astronomer Thomas Dorman, this could happen later this year to “mid next year”.
The biggest problem concerning Cosmos 482’s atmospheric re-entry is the size and mass of the spacecraft.
According to NASA, the spacecraft weighed in at 1,180kg when it blasted off into space nearly 50 years ago.
However, at least half of the probe is still in orbit and most of it will likely survive the fiery descent towards the ground.
What is even more terrifying, is no one can truly predict when and where the spacecraft will crash.
Mr Dorman told Space.com: “Our guess is maybe as much as 40 to 50 percent of the upper spacecraft bus may still be there.
“It’s interesting to note the apogee of the orbit is slowly starting to decay.
“My guess right now is that re-entry is late this year to mid next year.
“But predicting its decay is as much of an art as it is science.
“The other issue is, nobody can forecast solar activity for next year, which could affect the decay time.”
The spacecraft’s apogee is its farthest distance from the Earth. The shorter the apogee, the closer Cosmos 482 creep to our home planet.
Mr Dorman said the Russian probe swings on average between 1,700 miles (2,735 km) at its farthest to just 125 miles (200 km) at its lowest over Earth.
He said: “Trying to study Cosmos 482 and what remains of the spacecraft is like attempting to gain an understanding and insight of a shipwreck that is moving at hypervelocity speeds, under ever-changing lighting conditions from the surface of an ocean.
“This ocean being several hundred miles deep, with only a few seconds to see it at its closest and at best a few times a year.”
The Soviet probe took off into space on March 31, 1972, to follow in the footsteps of the USSR’s successful Venera 8 Venus probe.
The space probe’s mission was to land on the surface of Venus to study conditions on the scorching planet.
However, NASA explained a failure of the spacecraft’s engine “marooned” it in an elliptical orbit of Earth.
The US space agency said: “The Blok L escape stage’s main engine prematurely cut off after only 125 seconds of firing due to a failure in the onboard timer.
“As a result, the spacecraft entered an elliptical orbit around Earth.
“Officially, the Soviets named the probe Cosmos 482 to disguise its true mission.”
The spacecraft then re-entered the atmosphere after about a month.