[NEW UPDATES: Jan. 15, 2012 / Dec. 1, 2011 / Nov. 24, 2011; see below] The problem began on Wednesday after an initially successful launch of a Russian Zenit-2 rocket carrying the long-planned Phobos-Grunt spacecraft into Earth orbit. From there, booster rockets would kick in and send the space craft on its year-long mission to Phobos, the largest and innermost of two Mars moons. There was just one (very big) problem: the rocket’s propulsion system failed — twice.
Quoting from a recent NY Times piece, Vladimir Popovkin, the director of Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) stated: “The engines did not fire, not the first or the second time.”
The remaining stage of the rocket and its payload — the Phobos-Grunt probe — is currently “stuck” in an ovoid orbit some 129 miles (about 190 km) above Earth, where the atmosphere, though thin, is thick enough to cause sufficient drag to pull the stranded rocket back down towards Earth, possibly triggering a large explosion due to the large quantity of highly volatile and toxic hydrazine rocket fuel on board (note: approximately 2/3 of its weight is rocket fuel).
Officials at NASA have offered the Russian agency whatever help they might need by providing spacecraft communication and navigational network services.
At present, Russian engineers are racing against the clock to re-establish communication with the rocket. The craft has enough fuel to keep it in orbit for three or more days (counting from Wednesday), but may be insufficient to propel the craft far enough beyond Earth’s gravitational field to resume the journey to Mars’s moon.
According to unnamed sources in the agency (and quoited in the same NY Times article), there had been warnings prior to launching of “glitches in the probe’s command and control system” that “had not been fully resolved”.
When the craft will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere — and where it will land — are impossible to predict at this point. If the engineers working on the problem are not able to find a fix, the rocket could er-enter within the next week or as little as a few days from now.
More on the Phobos-Grunt Mission
The Phobos-Grunt mission (grunt is Russian for ‘ground’) is the most ambitious Russian space mission since its failed 1996 Mars mission (the craft exploded shortly after achieving Earth orbit) and was intended to help restore Russia to prominence in space exploration after many year of neglect. Costing an estimated 170 million USD, the 30,000 pound probe would deploy a small return craft to the surface of the moon, land, and scoop up soil samples, whereupon springs in its base would jolt the craft off the surface before the once and final igniting of its small engine, boosting it back into space and returning to Earth in August of 2014.
Adding to the potential mission failure anxiety here is a 250-pound Chinese satellite, the Yinghuo-1 (intended to orbit Mars and study its environment), that is “piggy-backing” aboard the Zenit rocket.
Some Controversy Surrounding a Proposed Mission Experiment
Space news readers may recall the planned mission — reported in September of 2009 — generating some controversy when it was announced that the probe would be carrying a titanium capsule containing “freeze-dried” bio-specimens when it landed on the surface of Phobos, and to be brought back home on the small return craft. The experiment is/was called LIFE – Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment* and would be transporting various microbes ( including a specie of radiation-resistant bacteria), yeast, tiny DNA-repairing invertebrates, and plant seeds. The plan is/was to determine how well such life forms tolerated the rigors of space travel. Some critics worried that if something went wrong (a crash, for example), the moon could become contaminated if the titanium capsule were to be damaged enough to expose its contents.
Watch this space for updates!
* It is not clear at this writing if the LIFE experiment was aboard the stranded rocket/probe, or, if its inclusion on the mission had been canceled.
UPDATE Nov. 24, 2011 – After two weeks of trying to contact the stranded Mars mission, Russian and ESA engineers are reporting the “first signs of life” from the Phobus-Grunt probe. Difficulties remain as they are only able to establish contact in 5 – 10 minute communication windows and the probe is in a very precarious, low Earth orbit. On Wednesday, instructions were sent to the probe to switch on its transmitter. Mission scientists say they have received “telemetric data” but are uncertain as to what exactly what the data indicates. Read more about the newest information on the stranded Russian Mars mission.
UPDATE Dec. 1, 2011 – Looks like bad news for the Phobos-Grunt Mission according to this latest item release Nov. 30: Attempt to Boost Orbit of Stuck Russian Probe Fails and in the ‘heads will roll’ category of bad space PR, there was this item today: Russian President Threatens Punishment for Recent Space Blunders
UPDATE Jan. 15, 2012 – The predicted, mid-January re-entry of the failed/stranded Phobos-Grunt Mission occurred at around 12:45 p.m. EST (1745 GMT) Sunday, after being stranded in low Earth orbit for more than two months. Roscosmos (the Russian space Agency) had earlier mapped the rocket’s ‘crash zone’ to be somewhere in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, However, was was not destroyed or disintegrated during the re-entry, ended up hitting the Pacific Ocean, a few hundred miles off the coast of Chile. This incorrect mapping and prediction is perhaps reflective of the troubled mission — and engineers inability to establish a control link — since the rocket’s second stage reached an altitude of about 129 miles. The hydrazine fuel from the second stage was probably combusted during the initial re-entry. For more details on the re-entry, check out the Space.com article: Failed Russian Mars Probe Crashes Into Pacific Ocean: Reports
Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles and essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is also an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). Michael currently lives in Seattle, Washington.