MOSCOW  - Fragments of Russia’s stranded Mars probe Phobos-Grunt could fall to Earth on January 15, the spokesman of Russia’s military space forces told Russian news agencies on Wednesday.

“As of Wednesday morning, the fragments of Phobos-Grunt are expected to fall January 15, 2012. The final date could change due to external factors,” said spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin, quoted by the Interfax news agency. In an embarrassing setback, the $165-million probe designed to travel to the Mars moon of Phobos and bring back soil samples, blasted off on November 9 but failed to leave the Earth’s orbit. The military space forces’ monitoring centre had earlier predicted in November that the probe, which is gradually descending and slowing down, would fall to Earth in January or February. Space forces spokesman Zolotukhin said the probe is now circling at an altitude of between 184 kilometres (114 miles) and 224 kilometres (139 miles) above Earth.