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Contact Established with Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft — Can the Mission Go On?

Final preparations for launching Phobos-Grunt in early November 2011. Credit: Roscosmos

Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

In an exciting development in the ongoing story of the Phobos-Grunt mission, a tracking station at Perth, Australia established contact with the Russian spacecraft on November 22 at 20:25 UT. This was the first signal received on Earth since the mission to Mars’ moon was launched on November 8, 2011.

Teams from ESA, who made the initial contact, are now working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communications with the spacecraft. As controllers begin the task of figuring out how to use this achievement to enable sending the spacecraft new commands, discussion is ongoing on whether the launch window will still be open for the craft to complete the mission.

The hopes are now is that at the very least engineers can prevent the spacecraft from plummeting back to Earth – and with guarded optimism that the mission could proceed in some manner.

Before contact was made, some reports said that if contact was made by November 24, the mission could proceed as planned, while other experts were saying that the launch window to complete the sample return mission closed on November 21.

But yet, a mission leaving from Earth orbit well into December might still succeed.

Engineers tuck Phobos-Grunt into the rocket fairing. Credit: Roscosmos

Built to travel to Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, the centerpiece of the unmanned spacecraft is a small capsule in which 200 grams of regolith (surface material consisting of dust and crushed rock) is to make a return flight to Earth. To launch the capsule on a flight that would return it to Earth in 2014, the spacecraft was scheduled to land on Phobos in February 2013 after entering orbit around Mars in October 2012.

A launch window is a period during which travel from one celestial body to another is possible, given a spacecraft’s propulsion capabilities and the alignment of the celestial bodies as they move through space. In the future, advanced propulsion technologies could allow for trips between Earth and Mars to depart at any time, but for now spacecraft must wait for the optimal moment. For trajectories from Earth to Mars, launch windows occur roughly every 26 months, as do launch windows for inbound flights to Earth from Mars.

The launch window for an Earth-to-Mars trajectory actually would allow Grunt to reach Mars and Phobos, if the spacecraft is readied for departure within two or three weeks from today. In such a case, however, the collection of regolith on the Phobosian surface would take place after that window has closed for the capsule to launch back to Earth. This is why people are saying that the window for Phobos-Grunt will close this Thursday.

But, as stated earlier, the window could still be open through mid-December. To see why, let’s take a glimpse of the Grunt’s science payload and other components . Sitting in front of what the Russian Space Agency is calling the sustainer engine, whose job is to propel the spacecraft from Earth to Mars, is a 110 kilogram probe called Yinhuo-1. China’s first Mars probe, Yinhuo-1 is to orbit the Red Planet for two years, performing various scientific studies. Moving forward from Yinhuo-1, brings us to the interplanetary module, Grunt’s descent stage.

Costing 5 billion rubles, or about 160 million US dollars, the interplanetary module is equipped with a descent engine and legs for landing on the Martian moon, machinery for scooping the regolith sample, and about 50 kilograms of extremely advanced scientific equipment whose value to the mission does not depend on whether the regolith sample makes it back to Earth.

Finally, there is the ascent stage and the return capsule that will lift off with it for the flight to Earth. In addition to accommodating the regolith that will be deposited inside, the capsule holds the Planetary Society’s LIFE biomodule, a study of the effects of the interplanetary space environment on organisms during a long-term voyage through space.

Before and after the departure of the return capsule, the instruments of the interplanetary module will be at work, performing celestial measurements, studying solar wind, and conducting geophysical studies -experiments whose results will help planetary scientists to understand the origin of our Solar System. The science package also will perform elemental, chemical, mineralogical, and thermal analysis of the regolith, look for traces of gases from Mars, and search for organic matter, the stuff of life.

ESA's Perth station, which made contact with the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, is located 20 kilometres north of Perth, Australia. Credit: ESA

If Grunt were to make a one-way trip to Phobos, all of these studies could be performed, while Yinghuo-1 could be deployed around Mars, as is supposed to happen during a round-trip voyage. If it were determined that the capsule really had no chance of making it from Phobos back to Earth, the capsule might even be jettisoned in high Earth orbit before the sustainer stage completes the final burn to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. This might return the LIFE biomodule to Earth after a long trajectory through deep space that would satisfy the objectives of the experiment. Then, we could recover our biomodule and study the organisms as planned.

On the other hand, controllers might consider sending the return capsule to Phobos despite the closure of the launch window for a return flight. After landing on the Martian moon atop the interplanetary module, the ascent stage need only wait until the next launch window opens 26 months later for arrival on Earth in 2016.

The contact now made with the spacecraft may open up even more possibilities for saving the mission. ESA said in a press release that the signals sent to Phoboos-Grunt commanded the spacecraft’s transmitter to switch on, sending a signal down to the station’s 15 m dish antenna.

Data received from Phobos-Grunt were then transmitted from Perth to Russian mission controllers via ESA’s Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany, for analysis.

Additional communication slots are available on November 23 at 20:21–20:28 GMT and 21:53–22:03 GMT, and ESA teams are working closely with Russian controllers to determine how best to maintain communication with their spacecraft.

See the ESA press release here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous November 23, 2011, 1:47 PM

    The Russians were having too much vodka and forgot to put the antennae on the spacecraft. Whoops.

    • Fulbert Fulberto November 23, 2011, 3:13 PM

      LOL, you’re a funny kid!

    • Gore Gogore November 23, 2011, 4:38 PM

      it`s at least weird that the chinese-russians builders of the rocket aren`t able to contact it, while a team from Australia that never saw it, can .

      • Anonymous November 23, 2011, 7:50 PM

        The Aussies are good at this stuff.

        • Anonymous November 24, 2011, 11:36 PM

          Ham Radio Operators are good at this stuff…

      • Anonymous November 24, 2011, 12:19 AM

        I’m a Ham Radio operator, and have communicated with a number of people I’ve never seen…

        Mostly the Aussies had to know the frequency, form of modulation and data format the probe was designed to use, the Keplerian orbital information (which may even be publicly available) to know where and when it would above their horizon for antenna tracking, and an estimate of what times the craft’s roll would put its antenna in line of sight with them…and go for it.

        Assuming nothing else was wrong…

  • Ciaran Ruane November 23, 2011, 1:49 PM

    Great news, hopefully the mission can be completed. I don’t see why they wouldn’t just wait an extra 26 months to get the ascent module back to Earth if the alternative is leaving everything behind.

  • Anonymous November 23, 2011, 1:58 PM

    Excellent news… I hope we receive better ones soon…

  • billyjanshon November 23, 2011, 2:18 PM

    I sure hope they will be able to completely recover the mission. But what an exciting development.

  • Anonymous November 23, 2011, 2:24 PM


  • Aerandir90 November 23, 2011, 4:05 PM

    Fantastic! Really hope they opt for the wait-for-two-years alternative so that they can hopefully complete the sample return part of the mission as well. I can’t think of any reasons why that cannot be done.

  • Wezley Jackson November 23, 2011, 4:39 PM

    Go grunt team and truly an international collaboraton: the americans, russians, chinese, australians, germans all co-ordinated with teams and giant machines “working the problem”

    What a great time to be alive.

  • Wezley Jackson November 23, 2011, 4:51 PM

    And to the other poster who said the russians forgot to put on the antenna. that’s not the reason. vodka didn’t do it I’m sure.

    The fregat 2nd stage burn for some reason did not occur and perhaps there was a fault of some kind which led the system to go safe mode.

    Moments before maximum dynamic pressure and Orbital Insertion primary stage firing sequence are traumatic for the nuts and bolts that hold evrent the best rocket stage together. Can’t fault the Russians. Just bad luck. But Phobos Grunt will be recovered and fly her mission.

    I’m sure there are teams analysing the data as we speak. These lo-gain attenas tucked under fregats 2nd stage circular fuel tanks were designed to transmit from geosynch/polar orbit being lo-gain. There is the simple practicality with the weight of the space craft there wasn’t room to pack in more transmisson dishes. 14 tons sitting in the fairing is quite impressive. Gotta give kudos to he Russian Roscosmos teams.

    We americans have learned a thing or two from the russian space program. They seem to be the ones with active leo launches with soyuz being quit a robust platform.

    I chuckled when I saw it in the blizzard the Soyuz being launched with 4 aboard ISS bound. 4 god sake let SpaceX off the chain and maybe those scientists can collaborate with Roscosmos..

    • Anonymous November 23, 2011, 11:26 PM

      “4 god sake let SpaceX off the chain and maybe those scientists can collaborate with Roscosmos.. ”

      Um, to what end? Those of SpaceX are engineers and technicians (not scientists) who merely want to provide lower cost transportation to LEO and elsewhere. They’re not a NASA that undertakes basic research. For them, payloads (eventually including people), after they’re delivered to LEO or elsewhere, are the customer’s business.

      Still, I saw that launch live, and immediately thought that our next RLV needs to be that robust. Launch in almost anything that would be safe for a commercial airliner takeoff…

      • Wezley Jackson November 24, 2011, 3:35 AM

        quoting delphinus100.. Um, to what end? Those of SpaceX are engineers and technicians (not scientists) …

        erm, last time I checked most engineers and technicians are qualified as scientists to get their jobs. Otherwise where do I sign up? I nearly completed a liberal arts degree? Can I help build the rockets?

        Elon Musk has two science degrees – Nice for the CEO to be a rocket scientists too ;) Maybe something NASA could learn there – Von Braun did get us to the moon after all ;) (not having a shot at Charlie – he’s there to protect jobs I understand this).

        My drift is that the expensive giant rockets NASA claims to want to build for $18bn + (last time I checked for SLS) with no concrete launch dates. Back to the old drawing board. again.

        Cue the schmaltzy music and stale, dangerous, complex (active safety system like giant pogo stick that can fail at any minute) and completely unimaginative and un-innovate proposion tech that caused Challeger to explode, and limited the shuttle to not launch on cold days… The Russians launch soyuz in the worst blizzard…. In the AresI-X (a 1/10th scale version of sls with one giant SRB) caused over $200 million dollars damage to pad 39b. The heat and hydrochloric compounds virtually melted most of the launch platform and complex. Nicely concealed from public view during the demonstration of the human-rated ‘ICBM’. From what I understand there had to be NASA Techs in mock suits cleaning up for Months (before even a repair due to the hazardous nature of the leftover perchlorates, hydrochoric, and other noxious compounds generated from the combusting rubber, epoxy and aluminum perchlorate).

        Google candlestick rocketship. JPL has created alternative hybrid fuel solution.. Now up to our unimaginative lawmakers to be led by someone who actually understands ‘rocket science’ and can lower the risk and cost of sending humans to space ala commercial arrangments with firms like SpaceX…

        I am suggesting that (taxpayer) money would be better redirected to private firms who can service LEO within 1-2 yrs.. Otherwise we can wait .. and wait… and wait.. By then many of the scientists in the other countries will be happily launching their own systems and we can play catch up for a change….

        Don’t want to rehash too much and you probably heard most of this from others. We have all talked about it for YEARS on this forum and other websites. Even if you are a die hard ARES / SLS Supporter you can’t simply close your eyes to the facts I have laid bare here… Sorry no kid gloves any more, its painful to watch NASA die a slow death from lack of vision. Time to get back to doing things that are Hard like JFK said.. Not rehash of the same tech borrowed from the military for the last 60+ years.

        Norm Augustine was right. And as much as I love NASA and human space exploration, the chance of NASA even bulding there “Apollo on steriods” for solar system exploration is very low in the current political and economic climate.

        As taxpayers we might get a return for humanity if some of that 18Bn were given to the private firms with COTS and encourage colaboration with International partners- at least there wouldn’t only be one nation currently launching to ISS and LEO…

        Short term there may be some pain for the contractors working on the solid rocket motor technology (but they won’t exactly go out of business as these propulsion techs are perfect for escape systems and robotic probe landers).. And since when did preserving the jobs of contractors take precedence over advancing our nation’s technology?

        There will never even be a valid comparison between Apollo and SLS… Never. Maybe 150 tons to leo but definitely lower safety and reliabilty.. I promise you.. I have seen the plans…

        I am no rocket scientist but I do know how to read reports and think critically in a sciency way. Wish we had more congress people who could do the same but I guess that is why they are lawmakers and not building rockets.

        How can we be spending 18bn without even any advancements in major tech like propulsion? I really hope a leader comes along with a real vision and determination to advance technology and not more of the same back-to-the-drawingboard schenanigans.

        Sorry to have gone so far off thread – Back to Phobos Grunt… If this bird goes on her way it will hopefully open peoples eyes that our real hope to see humanity go past the moon is increasingly with international partnerships and innovation… The future is brighter when we put aside minor differences and focus on major goals as a species (like not becoming the dinosaurs).

        • Anonymous November 24, 2011, 3:58 PM

          “erm, last time I checked most engineers and technicians are qualified as scientists to get their jobs. Otherwise where do I sign up? I nearly completed a liberal arts degree? Can I help build the rockets?”

          Clearly, you have to know a significant degree of ‘science’ to do any engineering, but that’s not the same as carrying out basic or even applied (though we then get into a gray area) research. A research geologist and a tunnel engineer both have to know a lot about rocks, but their jobs aren’t interchangeable (and it’s certainly possible for an individual to possess both of those overlapping skill sets, but there is a difference). Whenever we have fusion rockets, their designers, manufacturers and operators will have to *know* plasma physics, but they won’t *be* ‘plasma physicists,’ per se. Someone will have done enough that basic work already, in the sense that a coal-fired steam ship/locomotive engineer didn’t have to do research in combustion physics…he just had to know how coal burns, well enough to do his job.The expression ‘rocket science’ is a misnomer. We pretty much know the relevant combustion and materials science. The rest is making them do what you want them to do. That’s engineering.

          (I prefer to describe something relatively easy as; “It’s not quantum physics.” Unlike rockets, *no one* fully understands quantum physics, at this point.)

          And in any case, to whatever extent SpaceX engineers could help Roscosmos, they’d expect to be paid for their time as consultants. Again, they’re not NASA. They’re not an instrument of national policy that could do this for ‘the spirit of cooperation’ and the like, it’s their job. Elon can’t afford to just give that time and expertise away, his plate is full these days…

          “Even if you are a die hard ARES / SLS Supporter you can’t simply close your eyes to the facts I have laid bare here… ”

          Not me. Give me EELVs and Falcons plus orbital assembly and refueling any day. Orion still has value, but not the rest of the Constellation swamp. The re-entry test planned for 2014 will be carried out by a Delta IV, and that’s adequate to orbit one, forget any Ares-I derivatives. Dock it with a separately launched transfer stage to go deeper, forget SLS or any other Ares V/Shuttle derivatives…

          Ultimately, unmanned probes need to be done that way, too. Check them out at a space station while in LEO comfortably before the departure window, assure yourself that everything is as it should be (and, if necessary, return it to Earth if not), calibrate instruments against the known characteristics of Earth, and the only unknowns then, will be whether solar arrays (if any), antennas (remember Galileo?) and other devices that can’t be extended during a high thrust departure burn, will unfold properly afterward.

          • Wezley Jackson November 25, 2011, 12:38 AM

            I agree with your points… I went a little off track in my post..

            I really just wanted to point out what the Russians were doing right with their space program that we Americans could draw lessons from (and just pointing out for our fellow forum members that human space exploration is hard and dangerous, however it is ultimately the humans and machines working together that gets us to new undertandings and vistas). I wait with baited breath for our next robotic emissary to beam back images over the Internet :) GO Grunt team!

            Despite being a vociferous opponent of the SRB propulsion tech, I do admit Delta IV has also been a robust platform that has served us well and has a very low failure rate and high total number of launches over the decades.

            Despite being strongly against SRB propulsion tech from the point of view of its inherent lack of environmental & human safety, I would rather have Orion strapped to an upgraded Delta IV and return the remaining budget to COTS tenders (but I guess the world off congressional funding isn’t like the world of science – supposedly logical ;).

            You are right about the shades of grey in science qualification. I heard from a friend about a man who worked as a nuclear engineer without a university degree. I believed the story because there were so many specific details given to me so your point is taken.. We were arguing over degrees of distinction ;)

            The shuttle could be said to be a very unique vehicle with the ability to return 37 metric tons from LEO (max rating, no shuttle pilot would want to land with the Hubble in the payload bay ;) But the shuttle needed replacing and with a safer, more reliable architecture form the point of view of increasing safety and service reliability (low failure rate, proper escape systems) whilst lowering maintenance & mitigation costs associated with SRB technology in particular (this in my opinion is/was the dealbreaker for Ares/SLS and its bang-for-buck coefficient.

            I can tell we are both human space exploration fans ;)


  • Torbjörn Larsson November 23, 2011, 9:48 PM

    Ups and downs, but at least the final down (reentry) isn’t here yet. I had written this craft off as non-salvageable, and now I have to happily amend that.

    I am glad for the detailed description on launch windows, because it had technicalities on the mission not mentioned in this context.

    Sample return will remain a high priority if the craft can go to Mars, so I’m fairly sure that experiment will follow and final decisions postponed. LIFE is “LIFE 2″, as there has been a test mission on ISS, and it can easily be repeated on other cis-lunar missions. The sample return experiment is not so easily replaced.

    I read somewhere that the contact problem is one of geometry. The orbit is low, so ground stations have trouble follow and give the dialed down transmit strength that won’t harm the receiver. But the craft also entered its rotating thermal “bake” mode, making the antenna swing in and out of radio shadow in the 7 minute or so contact window.

    Simply put, AFAIU the used antennas were constructed for cis-lunar positions where the bake mode wouldn’t interfere. Seems to me, despite earlier assurance of contingency plans, not much thought was going into this failure mode and its consequences.

    The craft and its mission profile tells us once again that russians can well deal with complexity. (Remember the lunar rovers!) I rather believe it is due to the shoestring budget.

    [And perhaps a fairly reasonable analysis that software and its implied modular design makes general error recovery much more easy on the new generation crafts. Unfortunately "general" doesn't mean "always".]

    • Anonymous November 24, 2011, 11:37 PM

      “Ups and downs, but at least the final down (reentry) isn’t here yet.” ~ well put! lol!

  • Anonymous November 23, 2011, 10:13 PM

    Potentially Apollo 13 of robotic mission.

  • Robert Gishubl November 24, 2011, 12:57 AM

    Great news, it just show what international co-operation can do. I hope they can wait for the second return window and complete the sample return. But that needs the return stage to stay onboard for an extra 26 months and it may not be built to cope with that.
    If they can not I would hope they try for as much of the original mission as possible, the landing and sampling on Phobos will be a good test for future asteroid missions even if the return stage does not get back.

  • Wezley Jackson November 25, 2011, 1:39 AM

    Maybe Phobos-Grunt is waiting for MSL to join her for the voyage… Perhaps she is also waiting to speak to V-GER ;) I really hope this bird is on her way soon,…

  • Anonymous November 26, 2011, 5:03 PM

    What next, a manned Russian mission goes KER-PLOP? Lets hope not… but the odds look to be stacking up in that direction… eh? ACK! Got Quality Control issues?

  • Anonymous November 26, 2011, 5:03 PM

    What next, a manned Russian mission goes KER-PLOP? Lets hope not… but the odds look to be stacking up in that direction… eh? ACK! Got Quality Control issues?

  • Anonymous November 26, 2011, 5:03 PM

    What next, a manned Russian mission goes KER-PLOP? Lets hope not… but the odds look to be stacking up in that direction… eh? ACK! Got Quality Control issues?