The Zenit-2SB rocket with Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) craft blasts off from its launch pad at the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, early Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. The daring Russian mission to fly an unmanned probe to Phobos, a moon of Mars, and fly samples of its soil back to Earth was derailed right after its launch by equipment failure. Image: AP Photo/Oleg Urusov, Pool
(AP)—Russian scientists were racing against the clock Wednesday to find
a way to fire the engines of an unmanned probe destined to collect
surface samples from a moon of Mars, after a post-launch equipment
failure left it stuck in Earth orbit.
Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) craft was successfully launched by a
Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16 a.m. Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT
Tuesday) from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It
separated from the booster about 11 minutes later and was to fire its
engines twice to set out on its path to the Red Planet, but it never
Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said neither of the two
engine burns worked, probably due to the failure of the craft’s
orientation system. He said in televised remarks that space engineers
have three days to reset the craft’s computer program to make it work
before its batteries die.
James Oberg, a NASA veteran who now works as a space consultant, said that it’s still possible to regain control over the probe.
several days of battery power, and with the probe’s orbit slowly
twisting out of the optimal alignment with the desired path towards
Mars, the race is on to regain control, diagnose the potential computer
code flaws, and send up emergency rocket engine control commands,” Oberg
said in an email to The Associated Press. “Depending on the actual root
of the failure, this is not an impossible challenge.”
warned, however, that the effort to restore control over the probe is
hampered by a limited earth-to-space communications network that forced
Russian flight controllers to ask the general public in South America to
help locate the craft. Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the
trouble when they detected that the craft was stuck in Earth orbit.
mishap is the latest in a series of recent launch failures that have
raised concerns about the condition of Russia’s space industries. The
Russian space agency said it will establish its own quality inspection
teams at rocket factories to tighten oversight over production quality.
$170 million Phobos-Grunt was Russia’s first interplanetary mission
since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the
probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.
the controllers fail to bring the Phobos-Grunt back to life, the tons
of highly toxic fuel it carries would turn it into the most dangerous
manmade object to fall from orbit, Oberg warned.
seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze
before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling
satellite ever,” he said. “What was billed as the heaviest
interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts
to ever fall back to Earth out of control, an unenviable record.”
13.2-metric ton (29,040-pound) craft was described by its makers as the
heaviest interplanetary craft ever built, with fuel accounting for a
large share of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO
Lavochkin that has specialized in interplanetary vehicles since the dawn
of the space era.
company designed the craft for the botched 1996 launch and the two
probes sent to Phobos in 1988 also failed. One was lost a few months
after the launch due to an operator’s mistake, and contact was lost with
its twin when it was orbiting Mars.
space experts manage to fix the craft, it will reach Mars orbit in
September 2012 and the landing on Phobos will happen in February. The
return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200 g (7 ounces) of dirt from
Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.
In this Nov. 2, 2011, photo distributed by Russian Roscosmos space agency on Nov. 9, 2011, Russian space engineers work to prepare the unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Image: AP photo/ Russian Roscosmoc space agency, HO
is arguably the most challenging unmanned interplanetary mission ever.
It would require a long series of precision maneuvering for the probe to
reach the potato-shaped moon measuring just about 20 km (just over 12
miles) in diameter, land on its crater-dented surface, scrape it for
samples and fly back.
hoped that studies of the Phobos surface could help solve the mystery
of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.
Some believe that the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by
Mars’ gravity, while others think it’s a piece of debris resulting from
Mars’ collision with another celestial object.
Lavochkin’s chief Viktor Khartov described the current mission as
essential to maintain the nation’s technological expertise in robotic
missions to other planets.
is practically the last chance for the people who participated in the
previous project to share their experience with the next generation, to
preserve the continuity,” Khartov said before the launch, according to
the Interfax news agency.
has contributed to the mission by adding a mini-satellite that is to be
released when the craft enters an orbit around Mars on its way to
Phobos. The 115-kilogram (250-pound) satellite, Yinghuo-1, will become
the first Chinese spacecraft to explore Mars, studying the planet during
two years in orbit.
SOURCE: The Associated Press