Space: Blow for Roscosmos as Mars probe descends into silence

With what appears to be the imminent demise of Phobos-Grunt, Russian space agency Roscosmos has had a decidedly mixed year. In spite of many notable triumphs, including the first Soyuz launches from Kourou in French Guiana, and a number of successful launches into Earth orbit, Roscosmos faces a massive reorganisation.

Phobos-Grunt is an interplanetary probe, designed to circle Mars before landing on its moon, Phobos, taking a soil sample and returning it to Earth for analysis – something that has never been accomplished. Aside from the ambitious mission, it was intended as a restart of Russian catatonic planetary sciences, the first flight of what was to be a series of interplanetary probes.

Phobos-Grunt, an amazingly ambitious planetary probe, was launched on 8 November by a Zenit 2FG launch vehicle from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The Zenit launched successfully and inserted Phobos-Grunt into a parking orbit. The spacecraft’s own engines, derivative of the oft-used Fregat upper stage, were then supposed to automatically fire the spacecraft into a new trajectory, circling the Earth for velocity and shooting off to rendezvous with Mars.

The engine, however, failed to fire, and commands from the ground were blocked by part of the propulsion system. Observers have reported the successful reception of sporadic transmissions from the spacecraft, but Phobos-Grunt has not responded to commands from Earth.

The root cause of the malfunction has not been established, although it has been speculated that there was a fault in the flight or navigation computers.

The window for actually getting the craft to Mars expired on 21 November, according to website Russianspaceweb.com.

The mission has failed: the best-case scenario now appears to be the establishment of full two-way communications with the spacecraft before it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Even as technicians rush to make the best of the situation, consequences are already being felt. This mission marks the latest failure in what has been a trying year. Separate hardware issues led to the failures of the Proton launcher carrying the Express A4-M communications satellite, and the Soyuz-U carrying a Progress M-12M capsule with supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). While failures and partial failures are relatively common among space programmes, the quick succession of failures has dramatically raised the pressure on Roscosmos.

On 28 November, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev jumped into the fray, suggesting criminal prosecutions might be in order, but pointedly assuring that Stalin-style executions were not imminent.

A reorganisation of Roscosmos has been brewing for years, and leadership of the organisation and various sub-organisations has been fluid. It now appears, however, that a more radical reorganisation is in the works, including a possible handover to the military. Any serious restructuring is sure to deal further setbacks to Russia’s bruised ambitions in space.

Amid the storm, plans for future Mars missions, including a similar soil return mission, are apparently continuing unabated.

An idea to rebuild Phobos-Grunt has been floated, but Roscosmos has not given any sign of its intentions. Speculation has been swarming around the possibility of a major Russian contribution to the ESA/NASA ExoMars lander, scheduled for launch in 2016 – dependent on funding, of course.

However, Russia is likely to get one instrument to Mars. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), mounted on the Curiosity rover, contains a Russian-built neutron spectrometer, which will measure hydrogen levels on the planet’s surface.

The successful 26 November launch of an Atlas V carried MSL beyond Earth orbit and on a trajectory for Mars. On arrival in August 2012, MSL will enter the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute. Retrorockets will slow it to a hover and a hook will lower the rover Curiosity before flying off uncontrolled into oblivion.

Curiosity is the follow-up to the wildly successful rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004. One rover, Opportunity, is still responding to commands and continues to transmit data.

Zach Rosenberg, Flight Global

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