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

Soyuz Launches to Station amid Swirling Snowy Spectacular

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The future survival and fate of the International Space Station was on the line and is now firmly back on track following today’s (Nov. 13) successful, high stakes liftoff of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying a three man crew of two Russians and one American bound for the orbiting research platform, amidst the backdrop of a spectacular snowstorm swirling about the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – rare even by Russian standards.

The international crew comprises Expedition 29 Flight Engineer Dan Burbank from NASA – veteran of two prior shuttle missions to the station in 2000 and 2006 – and Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin from Russia. It’s the rookie flight for both Russian cosmonauts.

Soyuz TMA-22 lifts off under near blizzard conditions on Nov.13. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos

This is the first flight of a manned Soyuz-FG rocket – and of humans to space – since NASA’s Space Shuttle was forcibly retired in July and the subsequent failure of a virtually identical unmanned Soyuz-U booster in August which grounded all Russian flights to the ISS and threatened to potentially leave the station with no human presence aboard.

Snowy Soyuz TMA -22 blast off on Nov.13. Credit: Roscosmos

The trio of space flyers soared to the heavens at 11:14:03 p.m. EST Sunday Nov. 13 (11:14:03 a.m. Baikonur time Monday, Nov. 14) abroad their Soyuz TMA-22 capsule which was mounted atop the 50 meter tall Soyuz rocket.

Blastoff occurred precisely on time at about the time when the frigid, snow bedecked launch pad rotated into the plane of the orbit of the ISS. The launch was carried live on NASA TV and the ship quickly disappeared from view behind the nearly blinging blizzard.

The Soyuz TMA-22 achieved orbital insertion some nine minutes later into an initial 143 by 118 mile orbit, inclined 51 degrees to the equator.

The vehicles antennae’s and solar arrays were quickly deployed per plan and all spacecraft systems were functioning perfectly according to Russian Ground Control in Moscow.

Soyuz TMA-22 launches in spectacular snowstorm on Nov. 13 with Expedition 29 Flight Engineer Dan Burbank from NASA and Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin from Russia. Credit: NASA/Joe Acaba

Following a two day orbital chase and three course correction burns the future ISS residents are due to dock at the Russian Poisk module at the complex at about 12:33 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

In the hours prior to launch the crew received a religious blessing from the Russian Orthodox Church, took the bus for the 25 mile trip to the Cosmodrome, donned their white Sokol launch and entry suits and headed to the pad.

The crew boarded the capsule in the midst of an extremely heavy snow storm which struck the Baikonur region of Kazakhstan in the evening prior to launch. See photo from backup NASA astronaut Joe Acaba.

Soyuz TMA-22 crew boards capsule amidst snowstorm at Baikonur. Credit: NASA/Joe Acaba

Although snow is quite common at this time of year, the blizzard conditions at launch time were actually quite rare according to NASA spokesman Rob Navias at Baikonur.

American rockets would never blast off in such severe weather conditions – but it’s nothing for the Russians!

The temperature was about 24 F, roughly 6 inches (15 cm) of snow had accumulated on the ground at launch time and moderate wind gusts partially obscured the view.

For the first time ever, a Soyuz crew was dressed in parkas – See Joe Acaba twitpic below !

Gantry towers were retracted from the three stage Soyuz booster at about T minus 25 minutes. The umbilical’s retracted in the final seconds.

The three stage Soyuz-FG rocket lifted off from Launch Pad 1 (LC-1), the same pad from which Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew as the first human to space 50 Years ago this year. The pad is named “Gagarin Start” in honor of Gagarin’s courageous achievement on April 12, 1961.

The rocket was fueled with kerosene (RP-1) and cryogenic liquid oxygen.

The ISS was flying some 248 miles above the Pacific Ocean and just west of Chile at launch time.

On the way to the Pad. Snow is falling. First time crew has had to wear these overcoats/parkas. All is go so far. Twitpic and comment from NASA astronaut Joe Acaba at Baikonur

The importance of the TMA-22 mission cannot be overstated because it restored confidence in Russian rockets which now serve as the world’s only pathway for providing human access to the $100 Billion earth orbiting outpost.

The cramped Soyuz capsule measures just 2.2 m wide by 2.1 m high and weighs 2200 kg.

Today’s critical launch had been delayed be nearly two months from September 22, following the failure of a nearly identical Soyuz-U booster in August which was carrying the Progress 44 cargo resupply spacecraft and crashed ignominiously in Siberia after the third stage shut down unexpectedly.

The Progress 44 was loaded with nearly 3 tons of supplies and was bound for the ISS.

The third stage is nearly identical for both the manned and unmanned versions of the normally highly reliable Soyuz booster rocket.

The launch came only after a thorough review of the causes of the accident by a special State Commision- which was traced to a clogged fuel line – introduction of new quality control measures and careful inspection of all the engines.

“We have no doubt in our minds both the rocket and the vehicle are ready, all the activities have been done at the appropriate level of quality and reliability,” said Vladimir Popovkin, Head of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, prior to liftoff.

Expedition 29 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa, Commander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineer Sergei Volkov watch their new crew mates launch on time from inside the Destiny laboratory. Credit: NASA TV

The new crew will join the other half of Expedition 29 already in residence aboard the ISS; Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum (NASA) and Flight Engineers Satoshi Furukawa (Japan) and Sergei Volkov (Russia). This will temporarily restore the ISS to a full complement of 6 crewmembers – but only for a few days.

Fossum will hand over command of the station to the new crew within four days. His crew departs the ISS for Earth reentry on Nov. 21.

The successful launch means that the ISS will not have to be left unmanned for the first time since continuous manned occupation began over 11 years ago and which would have placed the station at risk in case of failures requiring human intervention.

Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin will spend 5 months aboard the station. They will be joined in December by the next trio to round out Expedition 30

Prelaunch photo of Soyuz-TMA-22/Expedition 29 crew - NASA astronaut Dan Burbank and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin Credit: Roscosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Russian Space Programs including Soyuz, Progress, Phobos-Grunt and Soyuz in South America starting here:
Soyuz Poised for High Stakes November 13 Blastoff – Space Stations Fate Hinges on Success
Success ! Launch Video of Crucial Russian Rocket to ISS puts Human Flights back on Track
Russians Race against Time to Save Ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe from Earthly Demise
Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off
Video Duet – Soyuz Debut Blast off from the Amazon Jungle and Rockin’ Russian Rollout !
Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Soyuz Poised for High Stakes November 13 Blastoff – Space Stations Fate Hinges on Success

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The stakes could not be higher for the Russian Soyuz rocket now poised at the launch pad at Baikonur in Kazakhstan and which will loft the next trio of space flyers to the International Space Station on Sunday, Nov. 13. This is the first flight of a manned Soyuz rocket since the Space Shuttle was retired in July and the subsequent failure of an unmanned Soyuz booster in August of this year.

The booster was rolled out to the pad on Friday (Nov. 11) and the very fate of the Space Station and the partners $100 Billion investment hinges on a successful blastoff of the venerable Soyuz – which dates back to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the inauguration of human spaceflight 50 years ago. This launch must succeed in order to keep a human presence aboard the ISS and comes in the wake of an upper stage failure days ago that left Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mars mission stranded in Earth orbit and potentially doomed. See the Soyuz rollout video and pictures below

The Soyuz rocket and spacecraft were rolled out on a rail car at Baikonur


Video Caption – Rollout of Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft and booster to Baikonur launch pad in Kazahkstan.

Following the August 24 launch failure and crash of a Soyuz rocket carrying the Progress 44 cargo resupply vehicle to the ISS, Russia’s manned space program was grounded because the third stage of the Soyuz rocket which malfunctioned is virtually identical for both the manned and unmanned versions.

Since NASA was forced to shut down the Space Shuttle program, the Russian Soyuz rocket and capsule are the sole method of transport to the ISS. Thus, American astronauts have no choice but to hitch a ride with the Russians.

No American replacement spacecraft will be ready for humans until 2014 at the very earliest. And significant NASA budget cuts are likely to delay the introduction of the proposed “space taxis” by several more years.

Soyuz TMA-22 rolls on railcar to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

Liftoff off the three man crew aboard the Soyuz-TMA 22 capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is slated for 11:14 p.m. EST Sunday Nov. 13 (11:14 a.m. Baikonur time Monday, Nov. 14) aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft.

Originally, the launch of the Soyuz TMA-22 crew had been scheduled for September 22 but was immediately put on indefinite hold following the August 24 crash.

Russia promptly announced the formation of a special state commission to investigate the failure, which rapidly traced the malfunction to a clogged fuel line and instituted fixes and stricter quality control measures.

Fortunately, the program got back on track 10 days ago when the Soyuz rocket for the unmanned Progress 45 cargo ship successfully blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Oct. 30, 2011 and docked two days later at the ISS.

Soyuz TMA-22 rolls on railcar to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

Soyuz TMA-22 poised at Baikonur launch pad. Credit: Roscosmos

The international trio of new ISS residents consists of Expedition 29 Flight Engineer Dan Burbank from NASA and Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin from Russia.

After a 2 day chase, they are due to link up with the ISS when their spacecraft docks to the Poisk mini-research module at 12:33 a.m. Wednesday.

When Burbank, Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin dock they will join the other trio of Expedition 29 crewmembers already aboard the ISS; Expedition 29 crewmates Commander Mike Fossum (NASA) and Flight Engineers Satoshi Furukawa (Japan) and Sergei Volkov (Russia) – and temporarily restore the ISS to a full complement of 6 crewmembers.

Soyuz TMA-22 crew meet journalists before blastoff. Credit: Roscosmos

But the full ISS staffing will be short-lived, because Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov will hand over all ISS duties to the new crew and undock their Soyuz TMA-02M capsule from the Rassvet research module on Nov. 21 and depart for Earth reentry and landing in Kazakhstan hours later.

The Soyuz TMA-22 poised at Baikonur launch pad will carry Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov, Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank of NASA and Russian Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin to the complex. The trio will spend almost five months on the station. Credit: Roscosmos

The new crew of three must reach the ISS before the current trio departs or the ISS would be left unmanned for the first time in over 11 years.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Russian Space Programs including Soyuz, Progress, Phobos-Grunt and Soyuz in South America starting here:
Success ! Launch Video of Crucial Russian Rocket to ISS puts Human Flights back on Track
Russians Race against Time to Save Ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe from Earthly Demise
Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off
Video Duet – Soyuz Debut Blast off from the Amazon Jungle and Rockin’ Russian Rollout !
Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Russians Race against Time to Save Ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe from Earthly Demise

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Teams of Russian engineers are in a race against time to save the ambitious and unprecedented Phobos-Grunt sample return mission from crashing back to Earth following the post launch failure of the upper stage rocket firings essential to propel the probe onward to destination Mars and scooping up dirt and dust from the tiny moon Phobos.

Roscomos, the Russian Federal Space Agency says they have perhaps two weeks to salvage the spacecraft – now stuck in Earth orbit – before its batteries run out and its orbit would naturally decay leading to an ignominious and uncontrollable reentry and earthly demise. Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos Chief had initially indicated a survival time limited to only 2 days in a briefing to Russian media.

“I give them a good chance — better than even — of recovering the mission and making the Mars insertion burn in a day or two, said James Oberg, a renowned expert on Russian and US spaceflight in commentary to Universe Today.

But Oberg also told me that having such problems so early in the mission was not a good sign. It all depends on whether the root cause is related to a simple software patch or serious hardware difficulties.

Following yesterday’s eerie midnight blastoff of Phobos-Grunt at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time atop an upgraded Zenit- 2SB booster and the apparently flawless performance of the first and second stages, the situation turned decidedly negative some 5 hours later when the pre-planned ignition burns of the Fregat upper stage failed to ignite twice.

Blastoff of Phobos-Grunt spacecraft atop Zenit-2 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9. Credit: Roscosmos

The 13,000 kg Phobos-Grunt (which means Phobos-Soil) spacecraft was to embark on an 11 month interplanetary cruise and arrive in the vicinity of Mars around October 2012, along with a piggybacked mini-satellite from China named Yinghuo-1, the nation’s first ever probe to orbit the Red Planet, and the Phobos-LIFE experiment from the Planetary Society.

“It has been a tough night for us because we could not detect the spacecraft [after the separation],” Vladimir Popovkin said according to the Ria Novosti Russian news agency. “Now we know its coordinates and we found out that the [probe’s] engine failed to start.”

“It is a complex trajectory, and the on-board computers could have simply failed to send a “switch on” command to the engine,” Popovkin added.

Fortunately, the engine ignition malfunction was one of the anticipated failure scenarios and a corrective action plan already exists for it – but only if it can be implemented to save the $163 million mission and Russian hopes to revive their long dormant interplanetary forays.

“But it’s an old old superstition that when leaving your house for a long voyage, if you trip on the door step, you better just lay down your suitcases and go back inside,” Oberg said.

“Seriously, on a mission so complex and innovative as this one is, with so much stuff that has to be done RIGHT the first time they’ve ever tried it, having this kind of error — even if it’s only a coding mishap — right at the start, is NOT a good omen about the quality of work on preparing the later steps,” Oberg warned.

The goal of the complicated and first of its-kind 3 year round trip mission is to deploy a lander to the surface of Phobos, grab up to 200 grams of pristine regolith and rocks, and then take off and sail back to Earth with the precious samples for analysis by the most scientifically advanced instruments available to humankind. Watch the detailed mission animation in my article here.

Russia’s historic Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars and Phobos will retrieve 200 grams of soil from the surface of Martian moon Phobos and fly the samples back to Earth by August 2014. Credit: Roscosmos

Another serious problem was a lengthy gap in tracking coverage and thus two way communications with the spacecraft which minimized and seriously delayed Russian controller’s ability to diagnose and correct the malfunction.

Roscosmos stated today that after two communications sessions all necessary parameters of the spacecrafts motion have been determined and they hoped to regain contact sometime Wednesday afternoon through a ground station at Baikonur and upload new software to orient the vehicle and commands for an engine firing at some point soon. Luckily the hydrazine filled propellant tank had not been jettisoned – or all would be lost.

It appears that the earliest day the Fregat engines can be fired is sometime Thursday. The Fregat would also journey all the way to Mars and conduct the critical braking maneuver to insert Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 into separate Mars orbits.

The engine ignition failure has left Phobos-Grunt stuck in an elliptical orbit ranging from about 207 by 347 kilometers and inclined 51 degrees. The engine firings would have placed the ship into a higher altitude elliptical orbit of 250 by 4150 km and then cruising to Mars.

The Russianspaceweb website reported that “the editor of this web site received a message from the director of Moscow-based Space Research Institute, IKI, Lev Zeleny, informing that tracking facilities of the US military provided significant help in establishing exact orbital parameters of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. This data was to be used during the previous night to send commands to the spacecraft as it was passing within range of ground control stations. Zeleny reassured that the mission team still had had “few days for reprogramming before the end of the Mars accessibility window for 2011.”

Alexey Kuznetsov, Head of the Roskosmos Press Office told me previously that, “The Phobos-Grunt launch window extends until November 25.” So theoretically, there is still some time to propel Phobos-Grunt to Mars but there are also many unknowns.

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter. Main propulsion is the Fregat upper stage that failed to ignite twice following flawless liftoff on Nov. 9. Credit: Roskosmos

Further details will be reported as they emerge.

Meanwhile, NASA’s car sized Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover is posied atop an Atlas V rocket at her Florida launch pad awaiting a Nov. 25 liftoff.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt here:
Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off
Russian Mars Moon Sample Probe Poised to Soar atop Upgraded Rocket – VideoAwesome 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

Trouble for the Phobos-Grunt Mission

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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.

Sources: Ria, Interfax, Hayka, NASASpaceflight.com

Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off

Russia has successfully launched the Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars aiming to return a soil sample from Phobos, the first time in history such a bold and complicated feat has been attempted.

The ambitious mission lifted off just past midnight at 00:16 Moscow time atop an upgraded version of the Zenit-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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Phobos-Grunt is now in a parking orbit around Earth and further burns are required by the modified Fregat upper stage by 8:20 p.m. tonight to put the probe of course for Earth departure and an interplanetary cruise to the Red Planet. Watch for updates later.

The liftoff of the $163 million robotic spacecraft marks Russia’s first attempt to conduct an interplanetary mission in some 15 years since the launch failure of the Mars 96 probe back in 1996. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil.

Russia’s historic Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars and Phobos liftoff off on top of a Zenit-2SB rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on November 9, 2011 at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time (Nov. 8, 3:16 p.m. EST) from Launch Pad 45. Credit: Roscosmos

The mission goal is to deploy a lander to Phobos and bring back up to 200 grams of pristine regolith and rocks from the surface of Phobos.

Also along for the ride is China’s first Mars mission named Yinghuo-1 (which means means Firefly-1) which will be jettisoned into Mars orbit as Phobos-Grunt inserts into a different orbit about Mars. Additionally, the Planetary Society’s Phobos LIFE biomodule is also on board.

The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt spacecraft should arrive in the vicinity of Mars around October 2012 after an 11 month interplanetary cruise. Following several months of orbital science investigations of Mars and its two moons and searching for a safe landing site, Phobos-Grunt will attempt history’s first ever touchdown on Phobos in February 2013. It will conduct a comprehensive analysis of Phobos surface and gather up to 200 grams of soil and rocks with a pair of robotic arms and a scoop device.

The samples will be transferred by a long tube onto the return vehicle mounted atop the lander. By March 2013 the ascent vehicle will take off for the trip back back to Earth.

Phobos-Grunt is equipped with a 50 kg array of 20 sophisticated science instruments including lasers, spectrometers, cameras and a microscope provided by an international team of scientists and science institutions from across Europe and Asia.

The entire voyage will last just under 3 years with the capsule plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere in August 2014. These would represent the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russia’s Luna 24 returned soil from the Moon back in 1976.

Russian Mars Moon Sample Probe Poised to Soar atop Upgraded Rocket – Video

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After an absence of almost two decades, Russia is at last on the cusp of resuming an ambitious agenda of interplanetary science missions on Tuesday Nov. 8 3:16 p.m. EST (Nov. 9, 00:16 a.m. Moscow Time) by taking aim at Mars and scooping up the first ever soil and rocks gathered from the mysterious moon Phobos. Russia’s space program was hampered for many years by funding woes after the breakup of the former Soviet Union and doubts stemming from earlier mission failures. The Russian science ramp up comes just as US space leadership fades significantly due to dire NASA budget cutbacks directed by Washington politicians.

Russia’s daring and highly risky Phobos-Grunt soil sampling robot to the battered Martian moon Phobos now sits poised at the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan atop a specially upgraded booster dubbed the “Zenit-2SB” rocket according to Alexey Kuznetsov, Head of the Roscosmos Press Office in an exclusive interveiw with Universe Today. Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency. Watch the awesome Mars mission animation in my article here. See Zenit Rocket rollout video and images below.

“The Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station will launch on November 9, 2011 at 00:26 a.m. Moscow time [Nov. 8, 3:36 p.m. EST],” Kuznetsov confirmed to Universe Today.

The Roscosmos video and photos here show the Zenit rocket rollout starting from Building 45 where the final prelaunch processing was conducted late last week mounting the nose cone holding the Phobos-Grunt and companion Yinghuo-1 spacecraft to the upgraded Fregat upper stage.

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station - lander. Credit: Roscosmos

If successful, Phobos Grunt will complete the Earth to Mars round trip voyage in some 34 months and the history making soil samples will plummet through the Earth’s atmosphere in August 2014 to waiting Russian military helicopters.

Following an 11 month interplanetary journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit and spend several months searching for a suitable landing site on Phobos. The probe is due to touchdown very gently on Phobos surface in Feb. 2013 using radar and precision thrusters accounting for the moon’s extremely weak gravity. After gathering samples with two robotic arms, the soil transferred to the Earth return capsule will take off in the ascent vehicle for the trip back home.

“The Zenit can launch spacecraft from Baikonur into LEO, MEO, HEO and elliptical near-Earth orbits (including GTO and geostationary orbit) and to escape trajectories as well,” Kuznetsov explained.

Zenit-2SB rocket rollout from Building 45 at Baikonur with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station. Credit: Roscosmos

The Zenit-2SB booster with Phobos-Grunt and the piggybacked Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter from China were rolled out horizontally by train on a railed transporter on Nov. 6, raised and erected vertically into launch position at Launch Pad 45 at Baikonur.

“The ‘Zenit-2SB’ rocket belongs to the rocket family using nontoxic fuel components – liquid oxygen and kerosene,” Kuznetsov elaborated. “The Zenit was manufactured by the A.M. Makarov Yuzhny Machine-Building Plant in Ukraine.”

“This “Zenit-2” rocket modification has significant improvements,” Kuznetsov told me. “The improvements include a new navigation system, a new generation on-board computer, and better performance by mass reduction and increase in thrust of the second stage engine.”

Zenit-2SB rocket rollout on train car to Baikonur launch pad with Phobos-Grunt sampling return mission to Mars and Phobos. Credit: Roscosmos

Likewise the upper stage was upgraded for the historic science flight.

“The Zenit’s Fregat upper stage has also been modified. The “Phobos Grunt” automatic interplanetary station cruise propulsion system was built onto the base of the “Fregat-SB” upper stage. Its main task is to insert the automatic interplanetary station onto the Mars flight path and accomplish the escape trajectory.”

“The “Phobos Grunt” automatic interplanetary station mission was constructed by the Russian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute in Moscow and the spacecraft was manufactured by NPO Lavochkin in Moscow,” Kuznetsov told me.

The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station is equipped with a powerful 50 kg payload of some 20 science instruments provided by a wide ranging team of international scientists and science institutions from Europe and Asia.

The audacious goal is to bring back up to 200 grams of pristine regolith and rocks that help unlock the mysteries of the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System

Zenit-2SB rocket rollout on train to launch pad at Baikonur with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station. Credit: Roscosmos

Zenit-2SB rocket erected vertically to launch position at Baikonur launch pad with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars spacecraft. Credit: Roscosmos

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars and Phobos poised atop Zenit rocket at Pad 45 at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Kazakhstan. Liftoff set for November 9, 2011 at 00:26 a.m. Moscow time - Nov. 8, 3:36 p.m. EST. Credit: Roscosmos.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover has also arrived at her Florida launch pad awaiting Nov. 25 liftoff.

Join me in wishing all the best to Roscosmos and NASA for this duo of fabulous Mars missions in 2011 that will help unravel our place in the Universe – like never before!

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov 9 launch here:
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

Awesome Action Animation Depicts Russia’s Bold Robot Retriever to Mars moon Phobos

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In less than 48 hours, Russia’s bold Phobos-Grunt mechanized probe will embark on a historic flight to haul humanities first ever soil samples back from the tiny Martian moon Phobos. Liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome remains on target for November 9 (Nov 8 US 3:16 p.m. EDT).

For an exquisite view of every step of this first-of-its-kind robot retriever, watch this spectacular action packed animation (below) outlining the entire 3 year round trip voyage. The simulation was produced by Roscosmos, Russia’s Federal Space Agency and the famous IKI Space Research Institute. It’s set to cool music – so don’t’ worry, you don’t need to understand Russian.

Another video below shows the arrival and uncrating of the actual Phobos-Grunt spacecraft at Baikonur in October 2011.

The highly detailed animation begins with the blastoff of the Zenit booster rocket and swiftly progresses through Earth orbit departure, Phobos-Grunt Mars orbit insertion, deployment of the piggybacked Yinghuo-1 (YH-1) mini satellite from China, Phobos-Grunt scientific reconnaissance of Phobos and search for a safe landing site, radar guided propulsive landing, robotic arm manipulation and soil sample collection and analysis, sample transfer to the Earth return capsule and departure, plummeting through Earth’s atmosphere and Russian helicopter retrieval of the precious cargo carrier.


Video Caption: Every step of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt soil retrieval mission. Credit: Roscosmos/IKI


Video Caption: On October 21, the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was uncrated and moved to assembly building 31 for fueling, final preflight processing and encapsulation in the nose cone. Credit: Roscosmos

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter. Credit: Roskosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov. 9 launch here:
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 and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos

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Phobo-Grunt, Russia’s first interplanetary mission in nearly two decades, has now been encapsulated inside the payload fairing and sealed to the payload adapter for mating to the upper stage of the Zenit booster rocket that will propel the probe to Mars orbit and carry out history’s first ever landing on the petite Martian moon Phobos and eventually return pristine samples to Earth for high powered scientific analysis.

Phobos-Grunt will launch on November 9, 2011 at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time [Nov. 8 3:16 p.m. EST],” said Alexey Kuznetsov, Head of the Roscosmos Press Office in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency, equivalent to NASA and ESA.

“The launch window extends until November 25.”

“At this moment we are preparing the “Zenit-2SB” launch vehicle, the cruise propulsion system and the “Phobos Grunt” automatic interplanetary station at the Baikonur Cosmodrome,” Kuznetzov told me. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft attached to payload adapter prior to encapsulation. Note folded solar panels, gold colored sample transfer tube leading to return capsule, landing legs, antennae and propulsion tanks. Credit: Roscosmos

China’s first ever mission to Mars, the Yinghuo-1 micro-satellite, is also encased inside the nose cone and is tucked in a truss segment between the lander and interplanetary propulsion stage.

Yinghuo-1 follows closely on the heels of China’s stunning success in demonstrating the nation’s first ever docking in space between two Chinese spacecraft earlier this week on November 3.

Sealing up Phobos-Grunt. Credit: Roscosmos

Technicians completed the two vehicles enclosure inside the protective fairing at Building 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and have now transported the spaceships to Building 41 where the payload is now being stacked to the upgraded “Fregat-SB” upper stage atop the Zenit-2SB rocket.

Martian moon Phobos imaged by Mars Express Orbiter from ESA. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The payload fairing protects the Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 spacecraft during the first few minutes of flight from the intense frictional heating and buildup of aerodynamic pressures. After the rocket soars through the discernable atmosphere the fairing splits in half and is jettisoned and falls back to Earth.

The nose cone sports a beautiful mission logo painted on the side of the fairing along with the logos of various Russian and International partner agencies and science institutes.

Phobos-Grunt payload fairing. Credit: Roscosmos

Propellants have already been loaded aboard the cruise stage, Phobos-Grunt lander and Earth return vehicle.

“The Phobos Grunt automatic interplanetary station was built, prepared and tested at NPO Lavochkin [near Moscow]. They were also responsible for inspection of the devices, instruments and systems integration,” Kuzntezov explained.

“Significant improvements and modifications and been made to both the “Fregat-SB” upper stage and the “Zenit-2SB” rocket,” said Kuznetzov.

View inside nose cone and preparing to encapsulate Phobos-Grunt. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roscosmos

Phobos-Grunt will blastoff from Launch Pad 45 at Baikonur,

Following an 11 month journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit in October 2012, spend several months investigating Phobos and then land around February 2013.

The goal is to snatch up to 200 grams of soil and rock from Phobos and fly them back to Earth in a small capsule set to plummet through the atmosphere in August 2014.

ESA, the European Space Agency, is assisting Russia determine a safe landing site by targeting their Mars Express Orbiter to collect high resolution images of Phobos. Look at 2 D and 3 D images and an animation here.

The regolith samples will help teach volumes about the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System. Scientists would be delighted if miniscule bits of Martian soil were mixed in with Phobos soil.

Phobos-Grunt , Earth’s next mission to Mars, is equipped with an advanced 50 kg payload array of some 20 science instruments.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover was also enclosed in her payload fairing a few days ago and is on course for liftoff on November 25.

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is scheduled to blastoff on November 9, 2011 from Baikonur Cosmodrome. It will reach Mars orbit in 2012 and eventually land on Phobos and return the first ever soil samples back to Earth in 2014. Credit Roscosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt here:
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

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity & Nov. 25 launch starting here:
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near

Video Caption: Phobos and Jupiter in Conjunction – taken from Mars orbit !
A movie of the 1 June 2011 Phobos–Jupiter conjunction made by combining a sequence of 100 images of the encounter taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Mars Express is searching for safe landing zones on Phobos for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt lander blasting off on November 9. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
3 D images of Phobos-Jupiter conjuction below
Update – Phobos-Grunt launch processing photo below

In just 7 days, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt sample return mission will blast off for Mars on November 9 on a daring mission to grab soil samples from the surface of the miniscule martian moon Phobos and return them back to Earth for analysis to give us breathtaking new insights into the formation and evolution of Mars, Phobos and our Solar System.

So, check out the amazing animation and 3 D stereo images of fish-like Phobos and banded Jupiter snapped by Europe’s Mars Express orbiter to get a bird’s eye feel for the battered terrain, inherent risks and outright beauty that’s in store for the Phobos -Grunt spaceship when it arrives in the Red Planet’s vicinity around October 2012. Whip out your red-cyan 3 D glasses – Now !

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ESA’s Mars Express orbiter (MEX) was tasked to help Russia locate suitable and safe landing sites on Phobos’ pockmarked terrain. MEX was built by ESA, the European Space Agency and has been in Mars orbit since 2003.

To capture this impressive series of rare photos of Jupiter and Phobos in conjunction, Mars Express performed a special maneuver to observe an unusual alignment of Jupiter and Phobos on 1 June 2011.

Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) snapped a total of 104 images over 68 seconds when the distance from the spacecraft to Phobos was 11,389 km and the distance to Jupiter was 529 million km.

Phobos- Jupiter Conjunction: before, during and after on 1 June 2011 from Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Enjoy the exquisite views of the bands of Jupiter and imagine exploring the deep pockets and mysterious grooves on Phobos – which may be a captured asteroid.

The camera was kept fixed on Jupiter, to ensure it remained static as Phobos passed in front and which afforded an improvement in our knowledge of the orbital position of Phobos.

Phobos in 3 D during flyby of 10 March 2010. Image taken from a distance of 278 km. Russia’s Phobos-Grunt will retrieve rogolith and rock for return to Earth. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have also occasionally photographed both of Mars’ moons to further refine their orbital parameters.

NASA’s Curiosity rover remains on track to liftoff for Mars on Nov. 25

Orbital Paths of Phobos and Mars Express. The trajectories of Phobos and Mars Express at the time of the conjunction with Jupiter on 1 June 2011. The letter ‘S’ denotes the South Pole of Mars.
Technicians at Baikonur Cosmodrome prepare Phobos-Grunt for upper stage attachment. Credit: Roscosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt here:
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