Trouble for the Phobos-Grunt Mission


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.

Sources: Ria, Interfax, Hayka,

16 Replies to “Trouble for the Phobos-Grunt Mission”

    1. I agree… I was looking forward to this one a lot. Apparently the batteries fail in 3 days. Maybe they can keep it in Earth orbit for 18 months and send the Soyuz up to replace the batteries?

      1. I think that if the solar panels have deployed correctly (and pointing at the Sun) there is a window through to 25 November. Let’s hope the fault can be fixed.

    1. for the price of one shuttle mission, you could have several new phobos-grunts. and that was the main problem of shuttle.

  1. Some at the Russian Space Agency center must be sweating bullets. If this mission fails, one or more heads may role.

    I really do feel for the dedicated men and women, whether it be at NASA, ESA, the Indian Space Agency (had a nasty rocket failure recently), or as may become the case here, in Russia, when a rocket fails (of peaceful purpose), or a spacecraft is lost for some reason or other: countless hours of meticulous, even loving, care and painstaking labor, years of professional lives invested in design, engineering, and testing of these mechanical, electronic constructions, housing scientific expectations, enclosing hope-filled anticipations, and embodying astronomical costs — ALL come to nothing in a moment’s failure, that sees the totality of those investments, hopes and dreams plunge into the ocean as useless junk, explode in an air-burst shower of shrapnel, or become lost in silent space, another unintended addition to the mass of “space junk” already swarming around our planet, or hurtling aimlessly beyond it.

    Those awful moments must induce a terrible feeling for all concerned. But by error lessons can be learned, and give birth to improvements and advancements to insure future success — hopefully.

    1. Actually it is most of those involved here – Phobos-Grunt transports a chinese Mars satellite which includes some swedish experiments, “an array of scientific instruments from all over the world” (includes a swedish experiment), and a follow-with US transpermia experiment.

      1. I detest the fact that not only do you (and many people on this forum) make stereotypical assumptions about Russians but you also use the phrase ‘lol’ like a teenage girl.

  2. OK, I read on Planetary Society that some unreliable sources are out there. This seems legit though (from russianspaceweb, HT Hugo):

    “According to available data, the spacecraft was in the so-called “safe mode,” which indicated problems, but left some hopes for further attempts to fire its engines. The MDU propulsion unit designed to go with the spacecraft all the way to Mars would be capable of a prolonged contigency mission.

    Along with Goldstone antenna, a European ground station also received some unreadable signal from the spacecraft. There were some indications that solar panels onboard the spacecraft had not been pointed toward the Sun, by the time when the charging of the onboard batteries had been commanded by the onboard computer.”

    “[Later:] Based on the analysis of data, Roskosmos promised to prepare and upload onboard all necessary commands for the resumption of orbital maneuvers. Most importantly, the agency assured that a more accurate estimate of the mission’s orbital parameters and power supplies onboard the spacecraft had provided two weeks for the transmission of new instructions to Phobos-Grunt.”

    Apparently problems with lock on guide stars has been rehearsed as a likely scenario (maybe a complicated track, but likely here from the above either a programming or a time estimate error) which is why they know what to do. Can’t remember where I read that when I hunted for info, and again there are unreliable sources this time around, so don’t quote me on this.

    The upshot is that with the solar panels oriented properly there is now a 2 week window. I believe I saw that the transfer orbit window remains open to Nov 25, so that seems to be the deadline.

    [I don’t think waiting another 2 years until the next TOW is an option, with the decay of the rather low parking orbit.]

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