Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hope fading fast for Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft


Hope is fading fast for the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe that remains stuck in earth orbit, after a brief success last week by an European Space Agency tracking center in Australia in communicating with the $170-million spacecraft. Subsequent attempts to establish communications have failed according to the E.S.A., making it likely that the spacecraft will eventually fall back into the atmosphere and be destroyed.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed concern over a string of recent failed unmanned missions, saying the losses were a blow to Russia’s reputation of reliable space technology. Medvedev went as far as to suggest that those responsible could face criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

On Saturday, Medvedev told reporters, "Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty," Medvedev told reporters in televised comments.

"I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment," he said.

According to Spaceflightnow.com:

The European Space Agency's tracking station in Perth, Australia, heard radio signals from the orbiting spacecraft Tuesday and Wednesday, but more than a half-dozen listening opportunities since then have produced no communications, ESA officials said.
The signal acquisition was the first time anyone contacted Phobos-Grunt since shortly after its Nov. 8 launch on a Zenit rocket. Phobos-Grunt was designed to to retrieve samples from the largest moon of Mars and return them to Earth.
Fitted with a special feedhorn device to attenuate the power of its signal, the 49-foot dish at Perth received limited telemetry from Phobos-Grunt during both successful passes. ESA passed along the data to NPO Lavochkin, the Russian contractor for the mission.
During both successful communications sessions, engineers commanded Phobos-Grunt's transmitter to turn on and off. The Perth station received some information from the spacecraft, including about 400 telemetry "frames" and two-day Doppler data during Wednesday's transmission, which held a more stable link, according to Wolfgang Hell, ESA's service manager for the Phobos-Grunt mission.
Controllers uplinked more commands to Phobos-Grunt during a subsequent pass Wednesday, but officials haven't heard from the truck-sized probe since then.
"Our Russian colleagues provided a full set of tele-commands for us to send up," Hell said. "And Perth station was set to use the same techniques and configurations that worked earlier. But we observed no downlink radio signal from the spacecraft."

Presently orbiting at about 200-miles, the 29,000 lb. Phobos-Grunt is expected to succumb to the affects of drag and fall back to Earth early next year, possibly in late January or sometime in February. A specific time and location for reentry won’t be determined until the craft is about to plunge into the atmosphere. While the craft could pose a danger to populated areas, the odds of an individual being struck by space debris remains rare, the spacecraft is carrying a full load of propellant.

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