Sad News About Russian Mars Mission

December 2nd, 2011

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Even as the US Mars Science Laboratory was sent on its way to the red planet, another ambitious mars mission died in orbit this week.

The Russian Phobos-Grunt mission was to be the first sample-return mission to the mars system.   The probe was not intended to land on mars.  Instead, it would include a lander bound for the martian moon Phobos and an orbiter.   The lander would include a series of scientific experiments along with a soil-collection system, capable of recovering 200 grams of material for return to earth.   Taking soil from Phobos is a bit easier than from mars, since the moon has less gravity and thus lifting off for the return to earth would be much easier. While Phobos may not be mars, it would still be an amazing achievement to bring back material from the vicinity of mars and a step toward conducting sample return missions on other moons in the solar system and eventually on mars itself.

Although Russian-lead, the probe was an international effort.  It carried an independent mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1 from the Chinese Space Agency.  It was to be the first Chinese interplanetary spacecraft.   It also carried a privately-funded experiment by the Planetary Society, which was aimed at proving whether bacteria could survive the trip between planets.  The European Space Agency also contributed to the program and provided assistance in the telemetry and ground-segment of the mission.

The probe lifted off successfully on November 9 and entered “parking orbit” around the earth.  From there it was supposed to preform systems tests and then fire a rocket engine to send it out of earth orbit and onto mars.  Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the probe did not respond to commands.   Initially it sent back a series of weak signals which appeared to show it had entered safe mode, indicating some kind of systems failure or disrupting event.   Attempts by Russian controllers to send commands to the spacecraft failed to elicit a response and only a few weak signals were detected by ground receivers.

Additional efforts by Russian and European agencies to reestablish communications with the spacecraft have now officially ended.  Last week, ground stations in Australia did manage to pick up a weak signal from the spacecraft, but since then it has been completely silent.   It may be some sort of power systems problem which has resulted in the probe failing to obtain the necessary electricity to run systems from the solar panels, leaving it only the remaining energy in on board batteries.   Right now, it’s not certain what caused the mission to be lost.

The probe will likely return to earth some time in the next few months, as its orbit degrades.   Some concern has been expressed about the toxic hydrazine propellant onboard, but that’s unlikely to reach the ground.  In all likelihood, the tanks of the spacecraft will be breached up and the hydrazine burned up before it gets anywhere near the surface of earth.

The Soviet and now Russian space program has a long history of successful unmanned planetary probes, including some very impressive missions to Venus as well as lunar probes and missions to comets.  Yet it has suffered some extremely bad luck when it comes to mars.  Of the nineteen Russian missions to mars, dating back to 1960, not a single one has been entirely successful, with many exploding on launch or failing to successfully reach martian orbit.

There’s something a little ironic about the Soviet Union never being able to get to the red planet.


This entry was posted on Friday, December 2nd, 2011 at 10:00 pm and is filed under Announcements, Misc, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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13 Responses to “Sad News About Russian Mars Mission”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    It is such a crap shoot every time a mission like this gets going. Both major programs have had their failures, and unfortunately these seem to get as much press as the successes.

    I was not impressed with the statement made by one of the Russian leadership hopefuls that the people involved in these failure be punished. The risks are such that you would be hard pressed to recruit good people to such a project under those conditions. It reminds me of some idiot broadcaster yapping about the performance of a pro athlete when it is obvious that the guy himself wouldn’t last one play on the field.


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  2. 2
    Chris Says:

    The whole thing was staged by the Russians on a sound stage in Minsk. The “accident” is just part of the cover up.


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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    I was not impressed with the statement made by one of the Russian leadership hopefuls that the people involved in these failure be punished. The risks are such that you would be hard pressed to recruit good people to such a project under those conditions. It reminds me of some idiot broadcaster yapping about the performance of a pro athlete when it is obvious that the guy himself wouldn’t last one play on the field.

    I read that too. It struck me as a horrible idea to even suggest that. Sure, if there turns out to be some actual corruption where someone involved was stealing money or something, then they should be punished, but there’s no indication of that.

    Even the best managed and best executed space missions are sometimes lost. It’s an inherently high risk area and when it does turn out to be a human error, that does not imply malice. These systems are so complex, only one low level assembler needs to make one mistake to cause a problem.

    Ultimately, it’s idiotic. They shoot themselves in the foot.

    No researcher or engineer wants to work in that climate. Nobody wants to have that hanging over their head. If you are facing that kind of threat, you’re going to want to go elsewhere and work under conditions where you aren’t dealing with that crap. If you’re a highly skilled engineer or scientist then that’s no problem. You can start looking at the United States or China or Japan or Europe for a new job in the aerospace sector and you’ll likely find it.

    Even if you don’t speak the language, if you’re one of the best and brightest in the Russian space program then Boeing or Lockheed Martin or BEA Systems will jump at the chance to get you. (Russia faced a bit of a brain drain problem in this area after the fall of the Soviet Union)

    Who does that leave? The mediocre engineers who can’t go work someplace else because they’re not desirable enough to snapped up by someone else.

    It’s just a horrible horrible idea. It never works.


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  4. 4
    Engineering Edgar Says:

    Yep. Bad idea. Horrible suggestion.

    Trying to encourage quality work by threat of punishment usually just makes most of those involved work harder to cover their ass. THey don’t actually try to stop bad things from happening, they just try to avoid being the one who gets blamed for it. Make as few decisions you can be held to. Pass the buck as fast as possible.

    This is what was blamed for causing Chernobyl.


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  5. 5
    Rick Says:

    It’s a real shame. It was nice to see so much international cooperation and private-sector involvement in a mission like this. I hope it does not discourage them from going forward with more missions.


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  6. 6
    Q Says:

    For those involved, you do not need to provide a negative incentive to make them work hard. The sadness of a lost mission is more than enough punishment.

    I agree, it is bad for their program to make any threats. Nobody would work under such conditions if they have the opportunity to work elsewhere. It will result in a brain drain.


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  7. 7
    AKA the A Says:

            Engineering Edgar said:

    Yep. Bad idea. Horrible suggestion.

    Trying to encourage quality work by threat of punishment usually just makes most of those involved work harder to cover their ass. THey don’t actually try to stop bad things from happening, they just try to avoid being the one who gets blamed for it.

    Make as few decisions you can be held to.

    Pass the buck as fast as possible.

    This is what was blamed for causing Chernobyl.

    Among other things…however the main reason for that was the result of a communist with the thinking “we’ll command wind & rain” trying to use the same logic onto a RBMK-1000 reactor…he broke(and forced others to so) several rules (as he was used to doing) that had very good reasons for being there, we all know how that turned out…
    The “blame pass” went crazy on the aftermath…

    As for the probe – it just happens to everybody, no country with a space program has a 100% success record…


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  8. 8
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

    Fortunately for all involved, it’ll probably never be clear who made whatever mistake or mistakes might have led to the loss of Phobos-Grunt.

            Engineering Edgar said:

    They don’t actually try to stop bad things from happening, they just try to avoid being the one who gets blamed for it.

    Make as few decisions you can be held to.

    Pass the buck as fast as possible.

    This is what was blamed for causing Chernobyl.

    This sort of work culture is tragically prevalent. What’s really scary is that I see it every day and I work in EDF’s nuclear engineering section.

    On which subject : Steve, any plans to write a little peace on Greenpeace sneaking into our sites? General consensus here (among the engineers) is that they couldn’t have done anything malicious, but nevertheless should never have managed to get anywhere near the reactor building itself.


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  9. 9
    Anon Says:

            I’mnotreallyhere said:

    This sort of work culture is tragically prevalent. What’s really scary is that I see it every day and I work in EDF’s nuclear engineering section.

    I think you’d be hard pressed to find a place where it doesn’t happen.

            I’mnotreallyhere said:

    [SNIP]Greenpeace sneaking into our sites? General consensus here (among the engineers) is that they couldn’t have done anything malicious, but nevertheless should never have managed to get anywhere near the reactor building itself.

    Just chuck the ones who do managed to break in and throw them in jail for a few years, then you shouldn’t have to worry about them.


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  10. 10
    AKA the A Says:

            I’mnotreallyhere said:

    On which subject : Steve, any plans to write a little peace on Greenpeace sneaking into our sites? General consensus here (among the engineers) is that they couldn’t have done anything malicious, but nevertheless should never have managed to get anywhere near the reactor building itself.

    Can’t they be framed for terrorism? I mean, who knows what they were planning;-), like blowing up the plant or something, let the Patriot Act loose on them I say! :D
    Two birds with stone – the punks get to rot in jail & the rest get a very real reasurrance that this will not be tolerated…


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  11. 11
    drbuzz0 Says:

            I’mnotreallyhere said:

    On which subject : Steve, any plans to write a little peace on Greenpeace sneaking into our sites? General consensus here (among the engineers) is that they couldn’t have done anything malicious, but nevertheless should never have managed to get anywhere near the reactor building itself.

    I think it’s a big problem and I would not dismiss it saying that they could not do anything malicious. I don’t think they could endanger anyone by damaging the critical equipment or disrupting operation, but these incidents do endanger security and workers. Remember: When they start climbing on containment buildings and chaining themselves to equipment, somebody has to go up there and get them, both to apprehend them and to protect them from injuring themselves. It’s not like they’re going to cooperate either. If you have some rescuers who climb to their perch to get them down, they can expect to encounter them shoving and squirming, which puts lives in danger.

    A while ago, activists breached the perimeter of a Spanish nuclear plant and tried to deface the cooling towers. Security intervened and during the incident, three guards were injured by the protestors. Thankfully, it wasn’t life threatening.

    So that danger needs to be considered


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  12. 12
    Matthew Says:

            AKA the A said:

    Can’t they be framed for terrorism? I mean, who knows what they were planning;-), like blowing up the plant or something, let the Patriot Act loose on them I say! :D
    Two birds with stone – the punks get to rot in jail & the rest get a very real reasurrance that this will not be tolerated…

    Why frame them?

    It’s an organized group attacking vital infrastructure in order to achieve political ends. They are neither a state actor nor a declared belligerent (in which case it would be acts of war and we could quite legitimately bomb their headquarters and kill their people). Terrorism actually fits them quite well, in my opinion., no stretching/framing required.


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  13. 13
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

            AKA the A said:

    Can’t they be framed for terrorism? I mean, who knows what they were planning;-), like blowing up the plant or something, let the Patriot Act loose on them I say! :D
    Two birds with stone – the punks get to rot in jail & the rest get a very real reasurrance that this will not be tolerated…

    Well they’ve been arrested, but will probably serve minimal time if any for what amounts to trespassing. Not sure what else they could be tried for in France. For better or for worse, France doesn’t have a Patriot Act and it’s one of those bits of legislation which is a bit too open to abuse in my opinion.

    You’re right Steve, clearly there’s a risk associated with getting people down from tall buildings when arresting them, though there’s nothing written up about them being at all violent or resisting much. Not even sure that they chained themselves to anything, they just put up a big banner saying there’s no such thing as safe nuclear power.

    EDF’s press release reads like the corporate spin that it is; claiming that the intruders were detected immediately and followed by surveillance all the way through. Which begs pretty important questions about why and how they weren’t stopped before they got to the ladders they had to climb really. I can’t tell you how long the security / police staff would have had to respond, I’ve not yet seen that site up close and personal. From Google Maps though, depending on whether they cut/jumped the fence or just dashed through the front, we’re only talking about a couple of hundred metres. So well under a minute for a fit and healthy adult.

    It would have been incredibly difficult for them to get into any industrial buildings (there’s a photo which looks like they’re climbing a ladder inside but they’re still outside; it’s just that the intrusion was before dawn) though with more malicious intent and some better equipment that isn’t necessarily impossible.

    I admit that I know very little of how site security response works, it’s obviously an area kept confidential on a need-to-know basis. Notably the reactors were not shut down, I’m not sure at what point in an intrusion this is considered necessary, perhaps only if intruders attempt to force entry to safety-critical buildings.


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