Teasing the Galactic Ghoul, Past and Present

Launch. It’s the part of spaceflight that is always the most fraught with peril, as your precious and delicate scientific package is encapsulated on top of tons of explosives, the fuze is lit, and the whole package hurls spaceward.

As noted by Bob King earlier last week on Universe Today, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter underwent just such an ordeal on March 14th, as it broke the surly bonds atop a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and headed towards the Red Planet with the Schiaparelli Lander affixed snug to its side. The spacecraft may have very nearly suffered a disaster that would’ve left it literally dead in space.

Don’t worry; the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is OK and safely in a heliocentric orbit now, en route for an orbital insertion around the Red Planet on October 19th, 2016. But our robotic ambassadors haven’t always been so lucky.

The Road to the Red Planet

Launching for Mars is a complex odyssey. Unlike U.S. Mars missions such as MAVEN and Curiosity, which typically launch atop an Atlas V rocket and head directly into solar orbit after launch, Russian Proton rocket launches initially enter a looping elliptical orbit around the Earth, and require a series of successive engine burns to raise the payload’s orbit for a final injection headed to Mars.

All was well as the upper stages did their job, four burns were performed, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter phoned home indicating it was in good health afterwards.

It’s what happened next that gave planners a start, and is still the source of a minor controversy.

While Russian sources tracked the Briz-M upper stage and say it worked as planned, observatories based in the southern hemisphere imaged the departure of ExoMars noted about half a dozen fragments following it. Having done its job, the Briz-M stage was to execute a maneuver after separation, placing it into a ‘graveyard’ solar orbit. Not only would this clear ExoMars on its trajectory, but the Red Planet itself.

Anatoly Zak notes in a recent article for Popular Mechanics online that the Briz-M upper stage isn’t subjected to strict sterilization measures, though its unclear if it too will reach Mars.

Solar orbit is littered with discarded boosters and spacecraft, going all the way back to the first mission to fly past the Moon and image the lunar farside, the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 in 1959. Some of these even come back on occasion to revisit the Earth as temporary moonlets, such as the Apollo 12 booster in 2002 and the Chang’e-2 booster in 2013.

And there is nothing more that the fabled ‘Galactic Ghoul’ loves than tasty Mars-bound spacecraft. Though the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is in its expected trajectory to Mars as planned, it seems that the the Briz-M upper stage may have exploded seconds after spacecraft separation.

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Encapsulation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Shiaperelli atop the Briz-M upper stage. Image credit: ESA/B. Bethge

The incident is eerily similar to the fate that befell the Phobos-Grunt sample return mission. Also launched from Baikonur, the spacecraft was stranded in Earth orbit after its Fregat upper stage failed to do its job. Phobos-Grunt reentered on January 15th, 2012 just over two months after launch, taking its container of Planetary Society-funded tardigrades scheduled to make the round trip to Mars permanently to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean instead.

The Mars 96 mission also failed to leave Earth orbit, and reentered over South America on November 16th, 1996 with a radioactive payload meant for power surface penetrators bound for the Red Planet.

The Russians haven’t had good luck with Mars landers, though they fared better landing on Venus with their Venera program… and had at least one spare Venusian Death Probe crash on Earth and fight the Six Million Dollar Man back in the 1970’s TV show, to boot.

The U.S. has actually had pretty good luck on Mars, having only lost the Mars Polar Lander for seven successful landing attempts. If successful later this year, Schiaparelli will be a first landing on Mars for any other space agency other than NASA.

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The first image from the surface of Mars? The only picture returned from Russia’s Mars 3 spacecraft, which fell silent 14 seconds after touchdown. Image credit: The Soviet Academy of Sciences.

And you’ll be able to explore Mars for yourself shortly, as opposition season for the Red Planet is right around the corner. Opposition for 2016 occurs on May 22nd, and we’re in for a cycle of favorable oppositions leading up to one in 2018 that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition.

Space is hard, but the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter seems to be made of still harder stuff, the likes of which no explosion in space can kill.

Onward to Mars!

Adventures in Satspotting: Why Are Different Orbits Needed for Satellites?

Congratulations: perhaps you’re a new space-faring nation, looking to place a shiny new payload around the planet Earth. You’ve assembled the technical know-how, and seek to break the surly bonds and join an exclusive club that thus far, only contains 14 nations capable of indigenous spaceflight. Now for the big question: which orbit should you choose?

Welcome to the wonderful world of orbital mechanics. Sure, satellites in orbit have to follow Newton’s laws of motion, as they perpetually ‘fall’ around the Earth without hitting it. But it’ll cost you in fuel expended and technical complexity to achieve different types of orbits. Different types of orbits can, however, be used to accomplish different goals.

The first artificial moon to be placed in low-Earth orbit was Sputnik 1 launched on October 4th, 1957. But even before the dawn of the Space Age, visionaries such as futurist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke realized the value of placing a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit about 35,786 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Placing a satellite in such an orbit keeps it in ‘lockstep’ with the Earth rotating below it once every twenty four hours.

Here are some of the more common orbits targeted by modern satellites and their uses:

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Different orbits versus altitude. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Cmglee, Geo Swan

Low-Earth Orbit (LEO): Placing a satellite 700 km above the surface of the Earth moving 27,500 km per hour will cause it to orbit the Earth once every 90 minutes. The International Space Station is in just such an orbit. Satellites in LEO are also subject to atmospheric drag, and must be boosted periodically.  Launching from the equator of the Earth gives you an initial free maximum 1,670 km/per hour boost into orbit eastward. Incidentally, the high 52 degree inclination orbit of the ISS is a compromise that assures that it is reachable from various launch sites worldwide.

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Satellite constellations, including NASA’s ‘A-Train’ of sun-synchronous Earth-observing satellites. Image credit: NASA

Low Earth orbit is also becoming crowded with space junk, and incidents such as the successful 2007 anti-satellite missile test by China, and the 2009 collision of Iridium 33 and the defunct Kosmos-2251 satellite both showered low Earth orbit with thousands of extra pieces of debris and didn’t help the situation much. There have been calls to make reentry technology standard on future satellites, and this will become paramount with the advent of flocks of nano and CubeSats in LEO.

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Still up there: The orbital trace of China’s space station Tiangong-1: Image credit: Orbitron

Sun-Synchronous Orbit: This is a highly inclined retrograde orbit that assures that the illumination angle of the Earth below is consistent on multiple passes. Though it takes a fair amount of energy to reach a Sun-synchronous orbit—plus a complex deployment maneuver known as a ‘dog leg’—this type of orbit is desirable for Earth observing missions. It’s also a favorite for spy satellites, and you’ll notice that many nations aiming to put up their first satellites will use the stated goal of ‘Earth observation’ to field spy satellites of their own.

Molyina orbit: A highly inclined elliptical orbit designed by the Russians, a Molyina orbit takes 12 hours to complete, placing the satellite over one hemisphere for 2/3rds of its orbit and returning it back over the same geographical point once every 24 hours.

A semi-synchronous orbit: A 12-hour elliptical orbit similar to a Molyina orbit, a semi-synchronous orbit is favored by Global Positioning Satellites.

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The launch of SpaceX’s CRS2 resupply mission headed to the ISS. Image credit: David Dickinson

Geosynchronous orbit: The aforementioned point 35,786 km above the Earth’s surface where a satellite stays fixed over a particular longitude.

Geostationary orbit:  Place a GEO satellite in orbit with a zero degree orbit, and it is considered Geostationary. Also sometimes referred to as a Clarke orbit, this location is extremely stable, and satellites placed there may remain in orbit for millions of years.

In  2012, the EchoStar XVI satellite was launched headed to GEO with the time capsule disk The Last Pictures for just that reason. It is quite possible that millions of years from now, GEO sats might be the primary artifacts remaining from the early 20th/21st century civilization.

Lagrange point orbits: 18th century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange made the observation that several stable points exist in any three body system. Dubbed Lagrange points, these locales serve as great stable positions to place observatories. The Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) sits at the L1 point to afford it a continuous view of the Sun; the James Webb Space Telescope is bound in 2018 for the L2 point beyond the Moon. To stay on station near a LaGrange point, a satellite must enter a Lissajous or Halo orbit around the imaginary Lagrange point in space.

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The L2 Lagrange point. Image credit: ESA

All of these orbits have pros and cons.  For example, atmospheric drag isn’t an issue in geosynchronous orbit, though it takes several boosts and transfer orbit maneuvers to attain. And as with any plan, complexity also adds more chances for things to fail, stranding a satellite in the wrong orbit. Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission suffered just such a fate after launch in 2011 when its Fregat upper stage failed to operate properly, stranding the interplanetary spacecraft in Earth orbit. Phobos-Grunt crashed back to Earth over the Southern Pacific on January 15th, 2012.

Space is a tough business, and it’s imperative to place things in the right orbit!

-Looking to hunt for satellites from your backyard? A great online resource to start with in Heavens-Above.

Russia’s Second Shot at Phobos May Return Bits of Mars As Well

After the tragic failure of the first Phobos-Grunt mission to even make it out of low-Earth orbit, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is hoping to give it another go at Mars’ largest moon with the Phobos-Grunt 2 mission in 2020. This new-and-improved version of the spacecraft will also feature a lander and return stage, and, if successful, may not only end up sending back pieces of Phobos but of Mars as well.


The origins of Phobos have long been a topic of planetary science debate. Did it form with Mars as a planet? Is it a wayward asteroid that ventured too closely to Mars? Or is it a chunk of the Red Planet blasted up into orbit from an ancient impact event? Only in-depth examination of its surface material will allow scientists to determine which scenario is most likely (or if the correct answer is really “none of the above”) and Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission attempted to become the first ever to not only land on the 16-mile-wide moon but also send samples back to Earth.

Unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards. After launching on Nov. 9, 2011, Phobos-Grunt’s upper stage failed to ignite, stranding it in low-Earth orbit. After all attempts to re-establish communication and control of the ill-fated spacecraft failed, Phobos-Grunt crashed back to Earth on Jan. 15, impacting in the southern Pacific off the coast of Chile.

But with a decade of development already invested in the mission, Roscosmos is willing to try again. “Ad astra per aspera,” as it’s said, and Phobos-Grunt 2 will attempt to overcome all hardships in 2020 to do what its predecessor couldn’t.

Read more: Russia to Try Again for Phobos-Grunt?

And, according to participating researchers James Head and Kenneth Ramsley from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the sample mission could end up being a “twofer.”

Phobos floats in front of Mars' horizon in a Mars Express image from January 2007 (ESA)
Phobos floats in front of Mars’ horizon in a Mars Express image from January 2007 (ESA)

Orbiting at an altitude of only 5,840 miles (9,400 km) Phobos has been passing through plumes material periodically blown off of Mars by impact events. Its surface soil very likely contains a good amount of Mars itself, scooped up over the millennia.

“When an impactor hits Mars, only a certain of proportion of ejecta will have enough velocity to reach the altitude of Phobos, and Phobos’ orbital path intersects only a certain proportion of that,” said Ramsley, a visiting researcher in Brown’s planetary geosciences group. “So we can crunch those numbers and find out what proportion of material on the surface of Phobos comes from Mars.”

Determining that ratio would then help figure out where Phobos was in Mars orbit millions of years ago, which in turn could point at its origins.

“Only recently — in the last several 100 million years or so — has Phobos orbited so close to Mars,”  Ramsley said. “In the distant past it orbited much higher up. So that’s why you’re going to see probably 10 to 100 times higher concentration in the upper regolith as opposed to deeper down.”

In addition, having an actual sample of Phobos (along with stowaway bits of Mars) in hand on Earth, as well as all the data acquired during the mission itself, would give scientists invaluable insight to the moon’s as-yet-unknown internal composition.

“Phobos has really low density,” said Head, professor of geological sciences at Brown and an author on the study. “Is that low density due to ice in its interior or is it due to Phobos being completely fragmented, like a loose rubble pile? We don’t know.”

The study was published in Volume 87 of Space and Planetary Science (Mars impact ejecta in the regolith of Phobos: Bulk concentration and distribution.)

Source: Brown University news release and RussianSpaceWeb.com.

See more images of Phobos here.

Rocket Failures May Spur Change In Russian Federal Space Agency: Report

It appears that the Russian government wants to take action over the string of unmanned mission failures beleaguering Roscosmos, or the Russian Federal Space Agency. A recent example includes the loss in June of three GLONASS navigation/positioning satellites in a launch failure. In 2011, Roscosmos lost four major missions, including the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft that was bound for the Martian moon Phobos.

RIA Novosti reports that Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, plans to create a new state entity to take over space manufacturing. The proposed United Rocket and Space Corporation, the report says, will reduce the reliance on imported parts to get missions off the ground, among other aims.

“A new state corporation will be created to take over manufacturing facilities from the Federal Space Agency, whose prestige has been severely dented in recent years by a string of failed rocket launches,” the report says. “The proposed United Rocket and Space Corporation will enable the trimming away of redundant departments replicated elsewhere in the space industry.”

As for Roscosmos itself, the report hints that other changes could be on the way. Its envisioned role is to “act as a federal executive body and contracting authority for programs to be implemented by the industry.” There are expected to be changes in management, among other measures.

The agency was formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and is responsible for most of Russia’s space activities. Russia’s heritage in space actually stretches back to the dawn of the space age in the 1950s and 1960s, when the country became the first nation to launch a satellite (Sputnik) and a human (Yuri Gagarin), among other milestones.

Read the whole report in Roscosmos.

Phobos-Grunt Failure Due to Computer Problems, Cosmic Rays

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Roscosmos said today that a computer malfunction caused by cosmic rays was the reason for the failure of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Additionally, ‘counterfeit’ chips in the computer may have played a role, said Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) head Vladimir Popovkin. The original mission was to do a sample return from Mars’ largest moon, but the spacecraft crashed back to Earth on January 15 after the rocket failed to send it out of Earth orbit shortly after the launch in November. This determination comes from a study done by a commission led by Yuri Koptev, former head of the Russian Space Agency.

“There was a restart of the two sets of on-board computer system so [it] moved to the highest energy saving mode and the standby command,” said Popovkin, quoted by the Russian RIA Novosti news agency. “The most likely reason is the impact of heavy charged space particles.”

A Russian scientist was also quoted by RIA Novosti that the outcome of the accident investigation should not be cause for dismissals and resignations as much as a “lesson to developers of new interplanetary spacecraft,” said Alexander Zakharov, scientific secretary of Institute of Space Research, which developed instruments and the scientific program the station.

Some officials from Roscosmos had threatened the jobs of those involved with the mission.

As far as the counterfeit computer chips, Popovkin said the components were imported. “The cause probably is in this,” he said. Reportedly, NASA and the U.S. Defense Department has also encountered counterfeit products, according to an article in Itar-Tass.

Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com reported more in detail about possible shortcomings in the design of the probe’s flight control system, called the BKU, saying that “the most likely culprit in the failure of the probe’s propulsion unit to ignite soon after it had entered orbit on November 9 was a programming error in the flight control system.”

Zak said an industry source revealed that the commission studying the failure “concluded that the mission failure was the result of the design error and the lack in the ground testing of BKU,” adding that “its shortcomings had been well documented long before the ill-fated launch.” The BKU was the the main computer and the “brain” of the spacecraft.

Additionally, Zak reported that the most probable cause was a “simultaneous robooting of two operational processors in the main computer” and the computers “could crash as a result of errors in their software or as a result of some external reasons, such as electromagnetic incompatibility,” industry sources said.

The assertion that “foreign radars” had possibly caused the malfunction was apparently tested by the company that built the Phobos-Grunt probe, NPO Lavochkin, with no problems coming from simulated radar interference.

“With all external failure scenarios effectively debunked, the most probable cause of the failure was narrowed down to the lack of integrated testing,” Zak reported.

Roscosmos also indicated they may try again to send a sample return mission to Phobos.

As to the probability of any pieces of the original Phobos-Grunt spacecraft surviving the fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, most experts agree that most of the debris ended up in the Pacific Ocean. However, some debris may have fallen onto regions of Chile and possibly Argentina.

Luciano Anselmo from the Space Flight Dynamics Laboratory (ISTI/CNR) in Pisa, Italy left a comment on a previous Universe Today article saying that the Phobos-LIFE capsule, which was designed to survive re-entry “should have impacted the ground approximately 820 km eastward along the trajectory and 15 minutes later (w.r.t. the 80 km ‘entry’ point), with a velocity around 70 km/h.”

However, Anselmo added that “based on the orbit data available from the different sources involved, our estimation of the final uncertainty is plus/minus 12 minutes. Other observations, or the lack of them, both from the ground or from space, might be used to reduce such uncertainty, but nothing of reliable and unclassified has been provided so far, to my knowledge.”

Sources: RIA Novosti, RussianSpaceWeb.com, Itar-Tass

Russia To Try Again For Phobos-Grunt?

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Russia says “eish odin ras”* for its Mars moon lander mission, according to Roscomos chief Vladimir Popovkin.

If the European Space Agency does not include Russia in its ExoMars program, a two-mission plan to explore Mars via orbiter and lander and then with twin rovers (slated to launch in 2016 and 2018, respectively), Roscosmos will try for a “take-two” on their failed Phobos-Grunt mission.

“We are holding consultations with the ESA about Russia’s participation in the ExoMars project… if no deal is reached, we will repeat the attempt,” said Popovkin on Tuesday.

Phobos-Grunt, an ambitious mission to land on the larger of Mars’ two moons, collect samples and return them to Earth, launched successfully on November 9, 2011. It became caught in low-Earth orbit shortly afterwards, its upper-stage engines having failed to ignite.

Read more about the tragic end of the Phobos-Grunt mission here.

After many attempts to communicate with the stranded spacecraft, Phobos-Grunt re-entered the atmosphere and impacted on January 15. Best estimates place the impact site in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern Chile.

The failed mission also included a Chinese orbiter and a life experiment from The Planetary Society.

Russia is offering ESA the use of a Proton launch vehicle for inclusion into the ExoMars mission, now that the U.S. has canceled its joint participation and Atlas carrier. Roscomos and ESA are scheduled to discuss the potential partnership in February.

(News via RIA Novosti)

*Phonetic pronunciation for “one more time.” Thanks to my friend Dima for the Russian lesson!

Few Details in ESA’s Report on Phobos-Grunt Re-Entry

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A week and a half after the re-entry of Russia’s Phobos–Grunt probe, experts have now made an official statement on their determination of where the spacecraft entered Earth’s atmosphere. But their report offers no information regarding if any pieces of the craft made it to Earth and where any remaining debris might be. Consequently, recovery of any pieces, including the Phobos-LIFE biomodule is highly unlikely.

“While this was an uncontrolled reentry, the location of the potential impact area was largely over ocean, with a correspondingly low probability of any detrimental effects,” said Prof. Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany.

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) reports that Phobos–Grunt re-entered on January 15, 2012 at 17:46 GMT, at an altitude of 80 km at 46°S and 87°W, near the South American coastline. About 7 minutes later, the report says, the spacecraft’s altitude was 10 km.

“Within the expected uncertainties, the prediction has been largely confirmed by observations,” ESA’s press release stated.

And that is all the information the IADC has provided, with no details on whether those observations were from observers on the ground or from satellite and radar facilities.

In fact, most of the initial information verifying that Phobos-Grunt was no longer in orbit came from ground observations of not seeing the spacecraft in orbit over Europe after 18:00 UTC on January 15 when it was supposed to have a visible pass.

IADC members include NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, European national agencies and the space agencies of Canada, China, India, Japan and Ukraine. The group primarily used orbit data from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and the Russian Space Surveillance System to determine Phobos-Grunt’s path to destruction. Radar systems in Germany and France also provided orbit calculations.

Phobos-Grunt orbiter and lander. Credit: ESA

Before re-entry, predictions from the various agencies differed widely, and initially after the probe was said to have re-entered, there was confusion on when and where the re-entry took place. Roscosmos initially released a statement claiming that the probe had fallen safely in the Pacific, off the coast of Chile, but later there were reports that fragments of the spacecraft had fallen in the south Atlantic Ocean. Officials said the confusion was due to the large number of uncertainties in the spacecraft’s orbit and the space environment affecting the satellite.

Indeed, everyone involved in re-entry calculations acknowledges the problematic nature of trying to monitor things in real-time, such as atmospheric density in the specific location the object is traveling. Most of the time, the details can only be deduced after the time of re-entry, and any unknowns can alter the projected re-entry and impact point by wide margins.

And so it is not entirely surprising that the IADC cannot offer much information beyond the initial entry point and time for Phobos-Grunt.

Although much of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was expected to disintegrate upon re-entry, Roscosmos said perhaps 20 to 30 fragments weighing a combined 200 kg (440 lb.) might survive and fall somewhere over a vast strip of the Earth’s surface between 51.4 deg. north and south of the equator.

The cause of the spacecraft’s malfunction has not yet been determined, and Roscosmos has indicated that a full report on the failure will be published on January 26, 2012, although an interim report said to be available by January 20 did not appear. The investigation is being conducted by Yuri Koptev, former head of the Russian Space Agency.

Shortly after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9, 2011, the probe became stuck in low Earth orbit after its upper stage engines repeatedly failed to ignite to send the ship on an unprecedented sample return mission to Mars’ moon Phobos. Later, ESA tracking stations were instrumental in establishing short-lived contact with the probe, leading to hopes the spacecraft could be saved. But subsequent contact was not able to be made, and without contact and inputs from the ground, the spacecraft’s orbit disintegrated.

However, the story of Phobos-Grunt’s malfunctions and demise has included some wild claims ranging from accidental radar interference to outright sabotage, along with intimations of conspiracy theories.

Several times after the malfunction, Russian space officials suggested that US radar emissions may have accidently disabled the spacecraft; at first from a station in Alaska, and then — after it was pointed out that Phobos-Grunt had never flown over that location — another Russian official said it was perhaps radar from a military installation on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

But these claims were later dismissed by a Russian scientist, Alexander Zakharov from the Russian Academy of Science Space Research Institute, who was involved with the development of Phobos-Grunt. He told the Russian news agency Ria Novosti that the radar theory is “far-fetched,” and suggested instead that issues with the spacecraft itself were likely to blame.

“You can come up with a lot of exotic reasons,” Zakharov told RIA Novosti. “But first you need to look at the apparatus itself. There are problems there,” and he indicated there may have been some known problems with the second stage of the rocket.

Later, after re-entry, links to Phobos-Grunt tracking data on the Space Track website were removed, fueling speculation of a conspiracy to hide in formation of where the probe fell. Space Track is a public website that ordinarily details such events, and is operated by U.S. Strategic Command. The military also did not publish any confirmation of the probe’s fall, which is not the usual protocol.

But later, the US Strategic Command said a human error had accidentally misfiled the information (in the 2011 files instead of 2012). Shortly after the error was discovered, the information was re-posted to the site and is accessible at this time.

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

Meanwhile, hopes dim for finding the capsule for the Phobos-LIFE biomodule which included organisms in a small capsule to test the “transpermia” hypothesis –- the possibility that life can travel from planet to planet inside rocks blasted off one planetary surface by impact, to land on another planetary surface. The biomodule would have flown to Phobos and then returned to Earth with the sample return capsule of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft.

“Because we can’t predict the details of the re-entry, we can’t predict whether the Phobos LIFE biomodule will survive, and certainly we can’t predict whether it will land somewhere it could be recovered,” said Bruce Betts from The Planetary Society, which sponsored the LIFE mission. “In the unlikely event the Phobos LIFE biomodule is recovered, we would want to study the organisms inside. Though not the long deep space experience we had hoped for, there still will be scientific value to study of the organisms even after just two months in low Earth orbit.”

Sources: ESA, ZaryaInfo.com, ieeeSpectrum/Jim Oberg, Ria Novosti. Special thanks to Robert Christy for the lead image, from his website Zarya.info

Doomed Phobos-Grunt Mars Mission Destructively Plunges to Earth

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Story and Crash Zone Map updated 1 p.m. EST Jan 16

Today (Jan. 15) was the last day of life for Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars after a desperate two month race against time and all out attempts to save the daring spaceship by firing up a malfunctioning thruster essential to putting the stranded probe on a trajectory to the Red Planet, failed.

According to the Russian news agency Ria Novosti, the doomed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft apparently plunged into the southern Pacific Ocean today, (Jan. 15) at about 12:45 p.m. EST, 21:45 Moscow time [17:45 GMT] after a fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Phobos-Grunt fragments have crashed down in the Pacific Ocean,” Russia’s Defense Ministry official Alexei Zolotukhin told RIA Novosti. He added that the fragments fell 1,250 kilometers to the west of the Chilean island of Wellington.

Universe Today will monitor the developing situation and update this story as warranted. On Jan. 16 Roscosmos confirmed the demise of Phobos-Grunt at 12:45 p.m. EST in the Pacific Ocean – during its last orbit; #1097.

Artist’s concept of Phobos-Grunt re-entry and breakup in the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 15, 2012

The demise of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was expected sometime today, (Jan 15) after a fiery and destructive fall back to Earth, said Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, in an official statement released early today before the crash.

Since the re-entry was uncontrolled, the exact time and location could not be precisely calculated beforehand.

Mission Poster for the Russian Phobos-Grunt soil sample return spacecraft that launched to Mars and its moon Phobos on 9 November 2011. The mission did not depart Earth orbit when the upper stage engines failed to ignite. Credit: Roskosmos ( Russian Federal Space Agency)/IKI

The actual crash time of the 13,500 kg space probe was slightly earlier than predicted.

Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin had previously stated that perhaps 20 to 30 fragments weighing perhaps 400 pounds (180 kg) might survive and would fall harmlessly to Earth.

The spacecraft burst into a large quantity of pieces as it hit the atmosphere, heated up and broke apart. But the actual outcome of any possible fragments is not known at this time.

Shortly after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9, 2011, the probe became stuck in low Earth orbit after its MDU upper stage engines repeatedly failed to ignite and send the ship on a bold sample return mission to the tiny Martian Moon Phobos.

Phobos-Grunt was loaded with over 11,000 kg of toxic propellants, including dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide, that went unused due to the thruster malfunction and that were expected to be incinerated during the plunge to Earth.

Frictional drag forces from the Earth’s atmosphere had gradually lowered the ship’s orbit in the past two months to the point of no return after all attempts to fire the thrusters and raise the orbit utterly failed.

The audacious goal of Phobos-Grunt was to carry out history’s first ever landing on Phobos, retrieve 200 grams of soil and bring the treasured samples back to Earth for high powered analysis that could help unlock secrets to the formation of Mars, Phobos and the Solar System.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft being encapsulated inside the nose cone by technicians at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to Nov. 9, 2011 blastoff. Credit: Roscosmos

The Holy Grail of planetary science is to retrieve Martian soil samples – and scientists speculated that bits of the Red Planet could be intermixed with the soil of its mini moon Phobos, barely 15 miles in diameter.

The science return from Phobos-Grunt would have been first rate and outstanding.

It’s a sad end to Russia’s attempts to restart their long dormant interplanetary space science program.

The $165 mission was Russia’s first Mars launch in more than 15 years.

Radar image of the Russian Mars orbiter Phobos-Grunt, created with the TIRA space observation radar by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. One can clearly see the extended solar panels (centre) and the tank ring (bottom)
Credit: Fraunhofer FHR
Click to enlarge

Roscosmos had stated that the Atlantic Ocean – to the west of Africa – was at the center of the predicted crash zone. But nothing was certain and the probe had the possibility to crash sooner, perhaps over the Pacific Ocean or South America or later over Africa, Europe or Russia.

Roscosmos had predicted the time of the plunge to Earth to be from 12:50 p.m. EST and 1:34 p.m. EST (1750 to 1834 GMT) or 21:50 to 22: 34 Moscow time on January 15. The last orbit carried the probe over the Pacific Ocean towards South America on a northeasterly heading.

Russia enlisted assistance from ESA and the US in a bid to establish contact with the probe to reorient itself and fire up its engines for a belated journey to the Red Planet. Other than extremely brief signals the efforts proved futile and today’s Pacific plunge is the unfortunate end result.

Hopefully the Russians will not give up in despair, but rather fix the flaws and launch an exciting new Mars mission.

NASA has had better luck with their Mars mission this season.

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover is precisely on course to the Red Planet following the Jan 11 firing of the cruise stage thrusters for the first of up to 6 Trajectory Correction Maneuvers – read the details here

Phobos-Grunt imaged while flying over Holland on Dec 28, 2011 by astrophotographer Ralf Vandebergh. Solar panels are deployed. Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

Read Complete Coverage about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and the Mars Rovers by Ken Kremer here:
Crucial Rocket Firing Puts Curiosity on Course for Martian Crater Touchdown
8 Years of Spirit on Mars – Pushing as Hard as We Can and Beyond !
2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!
Opportunity Discovers Most Powerful Evidence Yet for Martian Liquid Water
Curiosity Starts First Science on Mars Sojurn – How Lethal is Space Radiation to Life’s Survival

Russians Race to Save Ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe from Earthly Demise
Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off
Russian Mars Moon Sample Probe Poised to Soar atop Upgraded Rocket – Video
Awesome Action Animation Depicts Russia’s Bold Robot Retriever to Mars moon Phobos
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Phobos-Grunt Predicted to Fall in Afghanistan on January 14

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According to a news report in RiaNovosti, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft will fall January 14th, “somewhere between 30.7 degrees north and 62.3 degrees east,” placing debris near the city of Mirabad, in southwestern Afghanistan. RiaNovosti said this prediction is according to the United States Strategic Command who calculated the craft will reenter Earth’s atmosphere at 2:22 am.

Editor’s Update: In a call to USSTRATCOM to verify this information, a spokesperson said, “We are not making any statement at USSTRACOM at this time because we are not the lead for this event and cannot make an official statement for any predictions or what is releasable at this time.”

“Please note that the U.S. Strategic Command prediction had a large uncertainty associated with it, i.e., 11 days,” Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris told Universe Today in an email. “No one is yet able to predict with confidence the day the Phobos-Grunt will reenter.”


If the probe is predicted to fall on land, this raises the possibility of recovering the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), designed to investigate how life forms could spread between neighboring planets.

The Phobos-Grunt mission profile. Credit: Roscosmos

Carrying about 50 kilograms of scientific equipment, the unpiloted Phobos-Grunt probe was launched November 9th on a mission to the larger of Mars two small moons. Although the Zenit 2 rocket that launched the craft functioned flawlessly, sending Grunt into a low Earth orbit, the upper stage booster, known as Fregat, failed to boost the orbit and send it on a trajectory toward Mars. Thought to have reverted to safe mode, Phobos-Grunt has been flying straight and periodically adjusting her orbit using small thruster engines. While this maneuvering has extended the amount of time that the probe could remain in space before reentering Earth’s atmosphere, ground controllers have been struggling to establish a communication link.

For a while, space commentators considered the possibility that Grunt might be sent on an alternate mission to Earth’s Moon or an asteroid, if control could be restored after the window for a launch to Mars and Phobos was lost. During the past few weeks, the European Space Agency (ESA) started and ended efforts to communicate with the spacecraft on several occasions, but succeeded only twice. Various scenarios were imagined in which aspects of the probe’s mission could be salvaged, despite the serious malfunction that prevented the craft from leaving Earth orbit. But at this point, the only direction for the spacecraft to go is down.

In addition to equipment for making celestial and geophysical measurements and for conduct mineralogical and chemical analysis of the Phobosian regolith (crushed rock and dust), Grunt carries Yinhou-1, a Chinese probe that was to orbit Mars for two years. After releasing Yinhou-1 into Mars orbit and landing on Phobos, Grunt would have launched a return capsule, carrying a 200 gram sample of regolith back to Earth. Also traveling within the return capsule is the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE).

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

Specifically, LIFE is designed to study the effects of the interplanetary environment on various organisms during a long duration flight in space beyond the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which protect organisms in low Earth orbit from some of the most powerful components of space radiation. Although the spacecraft has not traveled outside of the belts, the organisms contained within the LIFE biomodule will have been in space for more than two months when the probe reenters the atmosphere.

The many tons of toxic fuel are expected to explode high in the atmosphere. However, since the return capsule is designed to survive the heat of reentry and make a survivable trajectory to the ground, it is quite possible that it will reach Afghanistan in one piece. Because the LIFE biomodule is designed to withstand an impact force of 4,000 Gs, it is possible that the experiment can be recovered and the biological samples studied.

To be sure, the possibility of recovering an unharmed returned capsule and LIFE depends on the willingness of the inhabitants around the landing site to allow the Russian Space Agency to pick it up. Given the proximity of the predicted landing area to a war zone and the fact that the Taliban are not known for being enthusiastic about space exploration and astrobiology, it is also possible that a landing on land could turn out no better than a landing over the deepest part of the ocean.

Source: RiaNovosti