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Russia’s unmanned Phobos-Grunt spacecraft may be in serious trouble, as it apparently has encountered problems with either computer software or the propulsion system, or perhaps both. There appears to be some confusion about what may have happened, with various sources reporting different things.
Russian Space Agency head Vladimir Popovkin was quoted by the Ria news agency, with a Google translation, “We’ve had a bad night, we could not detect long spacecraft, now found his position. It was found that the propulsion system failed. There was neither the first nor the second inclusion.”
Roughly, it appears that at first they lost telemetry with the spacecraft, but then were able to locate it and found that the first and second burns did not occur.
The spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by a Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16 a.m. Moscow time on Wednesday and separated from the booster about 11 minutes later.
From various translated sources, it appears the probe is now in a parking orbit. What should have happened is that two and a half hours after launch, the first burn should have put the spacecraft into an higher orbit around Earth, and a second burn should have occurred 126 minutes later, which would have sent it the spacecraft to Mars. Neither occurred, and it is yet to be determined if the problem was with the flight computer or flight hardware.
According to Interfax, Russian officials has said if it is a computer problem, they have three days to resolve the software issue before the battery power on the spacecraft runs out. But if the problem is related to flight hardware, the mission will likely be lost.
Another quote from Popovkin via Ria sounded hopeful: “It is possible that the spacecraft wasn’t able to reorient itself from Sun to stars, so the engines weren’t able to receive commands from sensors. No fuel tanks are lost, no fuel is dumped. We still have the whole spacecraft. Salvation may be possible.”
“During the day we will definitely inform all of the future situation,” Popovkin added.
We’ll provide more details as they become available.