Russia's attempts to save Mars probe unsuccessful (Update)

Nov 10, 2011 By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and SETH BORENSTEIN , Associated Press
In this Nov.2, 2011 photo distributed by Russian Roscosmos space agency on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, the unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe is seen on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. 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 on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, right after its launch by equipment failure.(AP photo/ Russian Roscosmoc space agency, HO) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

As Russia's space agency struggled Thursday to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth's orbit, some experts said the chances of saving the $170 million craft looked slim.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said efforts to communicate with the unmanned Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) spacecraft hadn't brought any results yet. The probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.

The Phobos-Grunt was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Kuznetsov said controllers on Thursday will continue attempts to fix the probe's engines to steer it to its path to one of Mars' two moons, Phobos.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin, said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed. Other space experts suggested that the craft's computer failure was a likely cause.

If a software flaw was the problem, scientists can likely fix it by sending new commands. Some experts think, however, that the failure was rooted in hardware and will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fix.

"I think we have lost the Phobos-Grunt," Vladimir Uvarov, a former top space expert at the Russian Defense Ministry, said in an interview published Thursday in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "It looks like a serious flaw. The past experience shows that efforts to make the engines work will likely fail."

Complicating the recovery efforts, the space agency only has a few hours a day to reach the probe due to Russia's limited earth-to-space communications network. Kuznetsov said new attempts to contact the craft will be made Thursday evening.

The spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), and most of that weight, about 11 metric tons (12 tons), is highly toxic fuel.

Most experts believe the fuel will likely stay liquid if the probe comes down and would harmlessly blow up about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above ground, but some fear it may freeze, survive the fiery reentry and spill on impact.

Earlier story:

A Russian spacecraft on its way to Mars with 12 tons of toxic fuel is stuck circling the wrong planet: ours. And it could come crashing back to Earth in a couple of weeks if engineers can't coax it back on track.

Space experts were hopeful Wednesday that the space probe's silent engines can be fired to send it off to Mars. If not, it will plummet to Earth. But most U.S. experts think the fuel on board would explode harmlessly in the and never reach the ground.

The launch mishap was the latest in a series of recent Russian failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country's space industries.

The unmanned $170 million Phobos-Ground craft successfully got into orbit, propelled off the ground by a Zenit-2 just after midnight Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT Tuesday) from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After separating from its booster, 11 minutes later, it was supposed to fire its engines twice and head to Mars.

Neither engine fired. So the spacecraft couldn't leave Earth's orbit, flying between 129 and 212 miles above Earth. And that orbit is already deteriorating, according to American satellite tracking.

The Federal Space Agency said the probe's orbit and its power sources could allow it to circle the Earth for about two weeks. That jibes with calculations made by NASA.

"From the orbits we're seeing from the U.S. , it's going to be a couple weeks before it comes in," NASA chief debris scientist Nicholas Johnson said Wednesday afternoon. "It's not going to be that immediate."

The craft was aiming to get ground samples from Phobos, one of Mars' two moons, and return them in a daring expedition hailed by eager scientists, who said it may include bits of Mars that may have been trapped on its moon.

Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed. The Russian rescue effort was being hampered by a limited earth-to-space communications network. Even before the problem, flight controllers were forced to ask people in South America to scan the sky to see if the engines on the spacecraft fired.

Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected the craft was stuck in an Earth orbit.

As time went on Wednesday, experts in the United States became more confident that the Russians could still get the probe going, just a day or two later than planned. There were no sightings of an explosion or partial rocket firings, which are good signs, said James Oberg, a NASA veteran who has written books on the Russian space program and who now works as a space consultant.

"I am growing more confident as we realize that the vehicle is healthy; it didn't blow up," Oberg said late Wednesday afternoon. "They have a chance of doing a Hubble repair, an Apollo 13, snatching victory out of jaws of defeat kind of thing."

The hope is that this is just a software problem that can be fixed and uploaded to the probe, said Bruce Betts, program director of the Planetary Society in the United States, a group that has a $500,000 experiment on board.

"There's a major problem, but it might be recoverable," Betts said. "The game's not over yet."

The spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons). Russian data shows that most of that weight - about 11 metric tons (12 tons) - is fuel, NASA's Johnson said.

The key is whether that fuel remains in liquid form or freezes. If it's liquid, it would harmlessly blow up about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above ground, he said.

If the fuel freezes, it poses more of a hazard to Earth because it could survive the fiery reentry and spill on impact. But most U.S. experts, including Johnson, believe it will likely stay liquid.

Yet Oberg said he worries that the fuel - nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine - would freeze in the cold over a couple weeks. If that happens it "will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he emailed. "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."

In 2008, the U.S. government, worried about the hazards of a half-ton of frozen hydrazine in a titanium tank in a dead spy satellite. It shot down the satellite with a Navy missile.

Oberg said if this latest spacecraft falls, it could cause significantly more damage than the Russian Mars-96 spacecraft that crashed in the Andes Mountains and sprinkled some nuclear material.

Far heavier objects - including NASA's Skylab and Russia's Mir space station - have fallen.

If the stuck spacecraft's fuel exploded, only 3 tons of dry material would be left, Johnson said. That's smaller than recent defunct American and German satellites that fell to Earth, causing a brief stir, but no damage as they hit the ocean.

"We've had much larger objects than this come down and not have a problem," said William Ailor of the Aerospace Corp.'s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies. "Most likely it'll be like the ones we've seen recently. It'll come down in the ocean and we'll never hear about it."

No one has ever been hurt by crashing space objects.

The Phobos-Ground was Russia's first interplanetary mission since the botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars. That probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure. Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin designed both, as well as two Phobos probes in 1988, which also failed.

The Russian space agency responded to the failures by promising to establish its own quality inspection teams at rocket factories to tighten oversight over production quality.

In contrast with the failures that dogged Soviet and Russian efforts to explore Mars, a succession of NASA's landers and rovers, including Spirit and Opportunity, have successfully studied the Red Planet.

If Phobos-Ground is fixed, it should reach Mars orbit next September and land on Phobos in February 2013. The return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200 grams (7 ounces) of ground samples from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.

It is arguably the most challenging unmanned interplanetary mission ever. It requires a long series of precise maneuvers for the probe to reach the potato-shaped moon just 20 kilometers (over 12 miles) in diameter, land on its cratered surface, scrape it for samples and fly back.

"If this had worked it would be a fantastic mission," said Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, who has worked on several successful and failed U.S. Mars probes. "It is a reminder, if we needed one, that exploration is hard and Mars missions are tricky."

NASA has its own Mars mission, a mega-rover called Curiosity set to launch Nov. 25 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and arrive on the surface next summer.

Explore further: Prospects for the 2014 Perseids

More information: Russian space agency:: http://bit.ly/tVk8TL

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User comments : 29

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unknownorgin
1 / 5 (4) Nov 10, 2011
If they think it is a software problem then they did not put the program through similation.
Hengine
4.7 / 5 (3) Nov 10, 2011
Really hope this doesn't fail D:
rawa1
1.4 / 5 (7) Nov 10, 2011
he worries that the fuel - nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine - would freeze in the cold over a couple weeks. If that happens it "will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he emailed
Just try to imagine the same situation with nuclear engines on the board. The hydrazine and nitrogen dioxide are vitamins with compare to plutonium load.
Doug_Huffman
2.7 / 5 (7) Nov 10, 2011
Apples:Oranges::N2H2:Pu
bluehigh
3.4 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2011
Depressing. I would love to see this succeed. I don't get it though. Is this really just $170 million dollars? That's peanuts. Loose change.
Pirouette
1.5 / 5 (13) Nov 10, 2011
There could be so many different causes for this glitch. If mechanical, it could be a simple thing like a faulty nut and bolt; if software, the writer may have made a grave error; if hardware it could be something as simple as a component loosening and moving out of place in the case; then, there's the possibility of sabotage by hackers. (Red China?) (MAFIA?) It couldn't be the CIA since Americans love space programs because they can LEARN from the results and, possibly, apply it to their own programs.
Russian manufacturing has never been very good, otherwise the world market would have been flooded with their products with demands from consumers. It's never happened and it's probably because the generations who lived under Communism are still not used to a Capitalist system, and are still of a mindset that Putin and his Party can still move back towards Communism and change the Russian economy again. The Russians are waiting for the other shoe to fall, so to speak, and it shows.
omatumr
1 / 5 (15) Nov 10, 2011
I suspect that there is more to this story.

The announced mission of the spacecraft seemed unusually abrupt for such a daring new space adventure.
FrankHerbert
1.4 / 5 (62) Nov 10, 2011
You're such a goddamned moron Pirouette. Jesus.

Yes it was definitely hackers (MAFIA?![WTF]{BBQ!}])! No wait it was faulty manufacturing because COMMUNISM! No wait it was... SHUT UP.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (11) Nov 10, 2011
this story is propoganda bullshit. i dont believe this story. sattelite stories have always been dubious coverups for military programs
yyz
5 / 5 (9) Nov 10, 2011
"The announced mission of the spacecraft seemed unusually abrupt for such a daring new space adventure."

This mission has been in the planning stages since 1999: http://en.wikiped...elopment

A planned launch in 2009 was scrubbed: http://en.wikiped...nch_date

I, too, suspect there is more to the story, only focusing on technical and engineering issues instead of conspiracy theories.
Pirouette
1.8 / 5 (16) Nov 10, 2011
FrankHerbert, as usual you never FULLY COMPREHEND easy sentences and ideas that I AND many others have posted in this and other threads. We LAUGH at your sophomoric statements and obvious jealousy of articulate and cogent comments. You and your alter-egos have never offered any comments of value that are germane to the topic of the thread. I will IGNORE your ignorance, and I suggest everyone else who is not also YOU do the same.
axemaster
3.6 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2011
This is what, failed Russian Mars mission number 16 now? Maybe the Russians should just stay away, clearly Mars doesn't like them very much...
Pirouette
2.3 / 5 (9) Nov 10, 2011
Jeddy says:
this story is propoganda bullshit. i dont believe this story. sattelite stories have always been dubious coverups for military programs


Jeddy, can you please elaborate on this? The Russian mission, (so they claimed), was Sample Return to the Mars moon, Phobos and back to Earth with the sample of about 7 ounces. Do you have any information that the mission is really a coverup for a Russian military program?
Nerdyguy
3.7 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2011
This is what, failed Russian Mars mission number 16 now? Maybe the Russians should just stay away, clearly Mars doesn't like them very much...


Mars has been pretty tough on every attempt to explore it so far. Just goes to show how we're really still in our infancy in terms of space flight and exploration.

But that's no reason to give up. Like Edison said: "I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb."

And that poor sap was only trying to make a pretty white light bulb blink on.
ShotmanMaslo
3.5 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2011
Just try to imagine the same situation with nuclear engines on the board. The hydrazine and nitrogen dioxide are vitamins with compare to plutonium load.


Radioisotope generators can be designed to survive reentry.
omatumr
2.2 / 5 (13) Nov 10, 2011
"The announced mission of the spacecraft seemed unusually abrupt for such a daring new space adventure."

This mission has been in the planning stages since 1999: http://en.wikiped...elopment

I, too, suspect there is more to the story, only focusing on technical and engineering issues instead of conspiracy theories.


Thanks for the links to information that I had overlooked earlier.

Oliver
plaasjaapie
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2011
Shit! :-(
Pirouette
1.5 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2011
Yes. . .a very shrewd observance, although making no sense. Well anyway, let's hope that the Russian scientists aren't TOO proud to ask for help from the U.S.
that_guy
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 10, 2011
this story is propoganda bullshit. i dont believe this story. sattelite stories have always been dubious coverups for military programs

You're absolutely right - satellite stories are often used for military programs.

However - the military, not being so stupid as you, is smart enough to do it quietly, instead of bringing the world's attention to a 'military' satellite that will cause suspicion if it does not plummet to earth or leave orbit in pretty short order.

Russia, China, and the US have all been playing the 'weather satellite' game for decades, so do tell Jeddy, what does Russia seek by changing the rules to their own disadvantage?
Pirouette
1.8 / 5 (12) Nov 10, 2011
Yeah. . . .just like the Roswell "weather balloon" story. LOL
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.2 / 5 (9) Nov 10, 2011
You're such a goddamned moron Pirouette. Jesus.

Yes it was definitely hackers (MAFIA?![WTF]{BBQ!}])! No wait it was faulty manufacturing because COMMUNISM! No wait it was... SHUT UP.
I second that emotion.
We LAUGH at your sophomoric statements and obvious jealousy of articulate and cogent comments.
uh who's we dweeb? You and your little glass-headed martian buddies?

Lets see, something on topic...

"To date, 26 of the 43 missions to Mars (thats a whopping 60%) have either failed or only been partially successful in the years since the first Marsnik 1 attempt by the Soviet Union in 1960. In total the USA/NASA has flown 20 missions, six were lost (70% success rate); the Soviet Union/Russian Federation flew 18, only two orbiters (Mars 2 and 3) were a success (11% success rate)"

-Thats a lot.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.6 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2011
There could be so many different causes for this glitch. If mechanical, it could be a simple thing like a faulty nut and bolt; if software, the writer may have made a grave error; if hardware it could be something as simple as a component loosening and moving out of place in the case; then, there's the possibility of sabotage by etcetc blahblahblah ad infinitum
Just curious... what makes you think you have to be saying all this? You like to hear yourself blahblah or are you too simpleminded to assume these things usually occur to others?

You think just because you CAN type you have to be typing everything that pops into your glassy little head??

Reminds me of another recent delusionist flooder of note... QC.
Pirouette
2.2 / 5 (10) Nov 10, 2011
Quite frankly, all the years since after World War 2, the idiots in charge of world governments, both military and civilian, have had all the common people who have some knowledge of what's going on, on the edge of their seats and biting their nails (so to speak), from worry about some jerk with his finger on the red button annihilating the people of one or more countries because they wanted to be "top dog" and felt superior to others by race, skin color, religion, ideology, technology, economy, and a myriad of other stupid reasons. I am so sick and tired of all this oneupmanship and the "my country is better than your country" nonsense. You will never hear any of them say that "MY SPECIES is better than YOUR SPECIES. That does not work well since we are ALL ONE species. But nobody thinks of that part of it. They just want to kill and take over and lord it over everyone else in the world even if these leaders are mentally disturbed and people love them anyway because of their strength.
Pirouette
2.7 / 5 (12) Nov 10, 2011
Ghost, you're welcome to your own opinions. Have fun espousing them. Your attempt to shut me up speaks volumes.
Nerdyguy
4.3 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2011
It's true of course that governments play the game of hiding the "secret" missions in with the legit ones.

However, it's not typical for any military agency to hype the mission up extensively, as was the case here. Plus, I don't recall seeing any of the usual reporting around rumors or hearsay that would even suggest that this mission had a potential "cover story".

Most importantly, though, the mission in and of itself was a pretty big feather in the cap for the Russians, assuming it would have worked out.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2011
Ghost, you're welcome to your own opinions. Have fun espousing them. Your attempt to shut me up speaks volumes.
And Im sure youve had this problem before havent you? Ever have any accidents while you were on your cellphone?
Pirouette
3 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2011
Nerdyguy, I agree. I think this was a purely SCIENCE mission, but the feather would have been in Putin's cap and would have furthered him politically.
gmurphy
5 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2011
It's a real shame for the Russian space program, they seem jinxed these days
Pirouette
1.5 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2011
Pirouette says:
"""There could be so many different causes for this glitch. If mechanical, it could be a simple thing like a faulty nut and bolt; if software, the writer may have made a grave error; if hardware it could be something as simple as a component loosening and moving out of place in the case; then, there's the possibility of sabotage by hackers. (Red China?) (MAFIA?) """

For those who were unable to comprehend fully, my reference to the MAFIA was "tongue-in-cheek", and not an actual accusation, which is the reason for the question mark also. A sense of humour while reading my comment might have given some understanding of the wording.