Monday, November 14, 2011

Phobos/Fobos-Grunt: Good News, Bad News, and Really Bad News

Updated 4:35 p.m. (November 14, 2011)

Mars Mission Most Likely a No-Go

"Russian Mars probe is likely lost, officials say"
Deutsche Welle (November 14, 2011)

"Russian officials have declared their country's Mars Phobos-Grunt probe, launched last Wednesday, as 'lost.' The mission was meant to head to a Martian moon, retrieve soil samples and then return to Earth by 2015.

" 'All attempts to obtain telemetric information from the Phobos-Grunt probe and activate its command system have failed,' quoted an unnamed Russian space sector source, as reported by the Interfax news agency. 'The probe must be considered lost.'..."

"...Popovkin brushed aside suggestions that if the probe indeed crashed to Earth, it would cause damage over a populated area.

" 'There are 7.5 metric tons of fuel in the aluminum tanks on board. We have no doubts that they will explode [and destroy the probe] upon re-entry,' Popovkin said. 'It is highly unlikely that its parts would reach Earth.'..."

That last bit, about bits and pieces of the Fobos-Grunt probe not reaching Earth's surface, strikes the Lemming as being a tad optimistic. Granted, we're almost certainly looking at a translation - and subtleties can get 'lost in translation' quite easily.

Still Trying: On a Deadline

"Russia Still Trying to Contact Stranded Mars Moon Probe"
Mike Wall, (November 14, 2011)

"Russian engineers are still trying to communicate with a wayward Mars moon probe, and they have until early December to fix the spacecraft and send it on its way, according to news reports...."

"Aborted Mars probe jeopardizes Russia's long-range space program"
Military commentator Konstantin Bogdanov, RIA Novosti (November 12, 2011)

"...Analysts are in no mood to exaggerate the situation with the spacecraft but note that its problems are more serious than an ordinary technical mishap. Russia's long range space program will now depend on Federal Space Agency efforts to reach the proper conclusions regarding the Phobos-Grunt incident...."

As the Lemming pointed out earlier, what's happening to Phobos/Fobos-Grunt is not good news for folks in Russia's space program.
First, the good news.

ROSCOSMOS, via BBCRussia's Phobos-Grunt mission, that should be spelled "Fobos-Grunt," to the Martian moon Phobos had a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and is in Earth orbit.

The massive robot spaceship carries China's Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter; a landing module that's designed to land of Phobos, scoop up a soil sample, and send the sample back to Earth; and The Planetary Society's LIFE experiment. More about that last, later.

Now, the bad news.

Something went wrong. Fobos-Grunt stopped communicating with Russia's ground control.

It's still holding its orientation, staying pointed in one direction, but Fobos-Grunt is in trouble. Its orbit only goes out about 345 kilometers (214 miles) from Earth's surface. The air up there is really thin, but it's not a perfect vacuum. Eventually it'll slow Fobos-Grunt down enough to drop more than a dozen tons of spaceship somewhere on Earth.

Russia's Phobos/Fobos-Grunt: It Could be Worse

"Stricken Mars probe stays silent"
Jonathan Amos, BBC (November 12, 2011)

"Efforts are continuing to try to regain control of the Russian Mars mission that is stuck circling the Earth.

"The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was put in orbit on Wednesday, but failed to fire the engine that was designed to take it on to the Red Planet.

"Engineers have been using tracking stations around the globe in an attempt to talk to the probe and diagnose its problems - but without success.

"Europe has offered Russia its assistance.

"The European Space Agency Spacecraft Operations Centre (Esoc) in Darmstadt, Germany, is now involved in trying to establish a link, using its antennas in French Guiana, the Canary Islands and on the Spanish mainland.

"The US space agency (Nasa) has also offered to do anything that might bring the wayward craft under full control...."

This is not good news for Fobos-Grunt, the Russian space program, or whoever gets fingered in the blame game that's almost sure to come. Still, as the Lemming said earlier, it could be worse. Back to the BBC:

"...Michael Murphy from Dayton, Ohio, posted on Friday: 'I just observed a pass of Phobos-Grunt and the Zenit second stage.

" 'The rocket body was tumbling slowly, and the probe itself appeared to be very steady as it passed.

" 'I did not get good timing information, but the probe was definitely steady. I saw no other objects along the track the probe followed,' he told the Phobos-Grunt thread on the SeeSat-L website...."

There is good news there. Michael Murphy spotted Fobos-Grunt, its rocket booster: but didn't see any debris nearby. Whatever went wrong, Russia's Mars ship is still pretty much in one piece.

Something with the tonnage of a largish truck waiting to fall back to Earth isn't good news. But, true to journalistic tradition, there's worse news:

Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine! Nitrogen Tetroxide!! Radioactive Cobalt-57!!!

To be fair, this Discovery op-ed didn't use exclamation marks, and did point out that:
  • The chemicals with big names would "vaporize" long before impact
  • There's only "a small quantity" of cobalt-57 involved
"Toxic Russian Mars Probe Heads Back to Earth"
Analysis by Ian O'Neill, Discovery News (November 11, 2011)

"It's hard to believe that only last week we were getting excited for Russia's first interplanetary mission in 15 years to launch. By now, we should be happy in the knowledge that the ambitious -- and awesome -- mission is powering through space, toward the Martian moon Phobos.

"The reality is that we are now discussing uncontrolled reentry scenarios.

"As if that wasn't enough bad news, we are looking at an uncontrolled toxic reentry scenario. Phobos-Grunt -- correctly written 'Fobos-Grunt,' meaning 'Phobos-Soil' or 'Phobos-Ground' -- is fully-laden with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide; that's ten tons of fuel and oxidizer. The probe itself weighs-in at only three tons...."

"...The majority of the fuel will likely vaporize during reentry, but everyone will be hoping for a splash-down in an ocean (which covers two-thirds of Earth, fortunately), as the wreckage will still be hazardous. There's also a small quantity of radioactive cobalt-57 in one of the science missions housed in the probe -- a fact that will most likely cause a media frenzy.

"It is for these reasons that the Russian media is dubbing Phobos-Grunt 'Most toxic falling satellite ever.'..."

While astronomers around the world are collecting data on the Fobos-Grunt orbit, and working out where it's likely to hit, Russia's higher-ups are doing their job. Sort of:

"...As we await the inevitable reentry of Phobos-Grunt, it would appear the Russian authorities are looking for someone to blame after a string of mission failures. According to a (translated) Interfax bulletin, an anonymous (expert) source indicated this may force reform in the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. Also, 'a number of positions of responsible persons' could face jail time...."
(Discovery News)

Meanwhile, back on Fobos-Grunt, there's a whole lot of hardware that probably won't get used. And some little critters sent by The Planetary Society:

Tardigrades to Mars

"...Not only was the mission designed to land and scoop-up some regolith (dust and rock) from Phobos' surface, returning it to Earth for analysis, it is also carrying a fascinating Planetary Society experiment called the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, or 'LIFE.'

"LIFE is composed of many different types of bacteria to small organisms that seem to tolerate the space environment pretty well. Tardigrades -- known as water bears -- were also a part of the payload.

"What was the point of sending microscopic organisms to a Martian moon?

"In an effort to understand how life appeared on Earth, the experiment would have put the hypothesis of 'panspermia' to the test. Panspermia is a proposed mechanism by with life may 'hop' from one planetary body to the next -- meteorites slamming into Mars, say, ejecting many tons of debris into space. Should any organisms be 'hitching a ride' on the debris, could they (or at least their genetic information) survive the interplanetary journey, and atmospheric entry, to spawn life on another world?..."
(Discovery News)

Depending on who's involved, what's happening to the Phobos/Fobos-Grunt mission is an embarrassment, a disappointment, or a life-changing disaster.

It's not easy, getting a ship to Mars. Besides the rigors of a long trip through interplanetary space, and working with new technologies, there's good old-fashioned human error:

Mixing Yards and Meters: Oops

"Metric mishap caused loss of NASA orbiter"
CNN (September 30, 1999)

"NASA lost a 125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agencys [sic!] team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation, according to a review finding released Thursday.

"The units mismatch prevented navigation information from transferring between the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft team in at Lockheed Martin in Denver and the flight team at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Lockheed Martin helped build, develop and operate the spacecraft for NASA. Its engineers provided navigation commands for Climate Orbiters thrusters in English units although NASA has been using the metric system predominantly since at least 1990.

"No one is pointing fingers at Lockheed Martin, said Tom Gavin, the JPL administrator to whom all project managers report.

"This is an endtoend process problem, he said. A single error like this should not have caused the loss of Climate Orbiter. Something went wrong in our system processes in checks and balances that we have that should have caught this and fixed it.

"The finding came from an internal review panel at JPL that reported the cause to Gavin on Wednesday. The group included about 10 navigation specialists, many of whom recently retired from JPL...."

As HAL said, in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," "It can only be attributable to human error."


Not likely. Tardigrades are tiny critters, maybe a millimeter long, fascinating for researchers: but not smart.

The Lemming's posted about sounding crazy before. Recently:Now, posts about falling spaceships, Mars, and all that:


Brigid said...

You might want to look at where you have that first picture. The first word of the associated paragraph is up by the top of the image and the rest of the paragraph is under it.

There also seems to be an image missing.

Oh, and this peculiar use of a colon: "Michael Murphy spotted Fobos-Grunt, its rocket booster: but didn't see any debris nearby." Made more peculiar by the fact that the sentence before this one ends with a colon.

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


I *think* I've fixed the image issues. Found and fixed the errant colon, too. Thanks!

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