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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