Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Russia Scrambles to save Mars Lunar Probe Mission

Russia has long been said to have a “Mars curse,” racking up a long string of failed missions to the Red Planet. As of now that curse has yet to be broken, but scientists are hopeful they can resolve technical issues with the Phobos-Grunt probe which is presently stuck in earth orbit before the craft tumbles back into the atmosphere.
Following a successful launch yesterday, Russia’s most ambitious space venture in years is now stuck in earth orbit, and scientists are racing against the clock to correct a guidance orientation fault on the Phobos-Grunt probe before the onboard batteries are exhausted and the unmanned $170 million craft is lost. The batteries are expected to remain charged for about two weeks.
Russia has launched a total of 16 missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, yet none has successfully completed its goals. Prior to Wednesday’s launch of the Phobos-Grunt mission, the sophisticated Mars-96 spacecraft was lost in a failed launch.
Space consultant James Oberg told Space News that if controllers failed to bring the Phobos-Grunt back to life, the tons of highly toxic fuel it carries would turn it into the most dangerous spacecraft ever to fall from orbit. "About seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he said. "What was billed as the heaviest interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts to ever fall back to Earth out of control."
Oberg said such a crash could cause significantly more damage than the Russian Mars-96 that crashed in the Andes Mountains or the American USA 193 spy satellite that was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile in 2008 to prevent it from splashing its toxic fuel.
Russia won’t be the only nation disappointed if the probe to the Martian moon Phobos fails. The craft is also carrying China's first Mars satellite Yinghuo-1. If the mission succeeds, Phobos-Grunt should reach Mars late next year. After separating from the cruise stage and releasing Yinghuo-1 into Mars orbit, the main spacecraft would then maneuver itself into position to land on Phobos.
The two craft lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Zenit rocket at 00:16 local time on Wednesday (20:16 GMT Tuesday) and were dropped off in an elliptical orbit around the Earth 11 minutes later. About two and a half hours later something went wrong. The cruise stage attached to Phobos-Grunt should then have made the first of two firings, to raise the orbit and to send the mission on to Mars.
Neither of those planned engine burns occurred. Reports suggest the spacecraft attempted to orientate itself in space using the stars, failed to pick them up and therefore did not execute the firings as planned.
Russian space officials told the BBC: "It looks like the engine system has not worked," Vladimir Popovkin, the head of the Russian space agency (Roscosmos), explained. "It seems it couldn't reorient itself away from the Sun towards the stars so the sidewall closed. It was foreseen by the flight program. Now, we have found its location, and we have to unpack the sidewall, to check the telemetry and after that we will restart the spacecraft control program to reboot the mission. The craft is in a support orbit. The fuel tanks were not jettisoned after the first switch-on." And he added: "I would not say it's a failure; it's a non-standard situation, but it is a working situation."
If the problem is simply a software issue and engineers can upload new commands, they have a chance of rescuing the mission. If the fault lies in a hardware malfunction, Phobos-Grunt may well be doomed.


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