Phobos-Grunt scheduled to launch at 20:16 UT

By Phil Plait | November 8, 2011 9:05 am

[Update (20:30 UT): The mission launched on time, and everything looks good so far! As I write this, the probe’s orbiting the Earth. In a few hours (a little after 01:00 UT) it will make its burn to send it on its way to the Red Planet. Congrats to everyone involved in this mission!]

[UPDATE 2 (05:00 UT): There are problems, potentially serious ones, with the mission. As I write this what happened is not clear, but Emily is keeping up with the news.]

[UPDATE 3 (Nov 9, 16:00 UT): It looks like the spacecraft is in safe mode, meaning it shut itself off to prevent damage due to an unforeseen problem. The burn to move it out of Earth orbit and no to Mars did not occur, which means it still has all its fuel. This is very bad, but perhaps not catastrophic. Emily has the details.]

The Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt — which will land on the Martian moon Phobos and return a sample to Earth! — is scheduled to launch today at 20:16 UT (15:16 Eastern US time). As usual with planetary missions, Emily Lakdawalla has the details. The launch will be streamed live on SpaceflightNow.

phobos_hires

Grunt means "soil" in Russian; the name is a little misleading since soil technically is rock and other material broken down in part by bacterial processes. A better term is regolith, but I’m just being pedantic. The important thing to note is that if all goes well this probe will return a sample of the surface of another planet’s moon back to Earth!

That’s awesome.

We still don’t understand Phobos all that well; it may be a captured asteroid orbiting Mars, and its surface is weird, as you can see in the picture above. It’s lined with grooves, which may have formed when asteroid impacts on Mars below blasted up material, which the tiny rock then plowed through. That’s still being argued about. A sample return might help resolve issues like that (for example, finding clear evidence of Martian minerals in Phobos samples). I’m not a geologist, or an asteroid expert, so I’m just excited that a) this probe is going to get intense images of Phobos, 2) we’re going to expand the boundaries of science once again, and γ) there will be even more new mysteries to solve once the material is studied, too.

And it all starts today, in a few hours.

Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)


Related posts:

More *incredible* Phobos imagery
Phobos, closeup of fear
It’s rabbit^h^h^h Phobos season!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: Mars, Phobos, Phobos-Grunt

Comments (40)

  1. Blargh

    Awesome! Why hasn’t this gotten more press?

    Also: my Russian is pretty darned rusty, but wouldn’t “грунт” (“grunt”) be more accurately translated as simply “ground”? “Soil” would be something like “почва” (“pochva”).

  2. Dr. Plait,
    A question about the image: There appear to be a variety of linear striations across the surface of the moon. What causes these? Some are vertical while others are horizontal. Also what is the wandering line of what appears to be small craters from the lower right side to the large crater in the upper left? Incredible photo.

    -Dave

  3. @Blargh,

    You’re absolutely right. Seems that your Russian isn’t as rusty as you think.

  4. Christian

    @Blargh,

    I guess you’re right. At least according to Wikipedia it seems to come from the German word “Grund”, which in this context is the same as the English “ground.”

  5. CraterJoe

    Wow! I thought this mission was in limbo! I am very, very excited to hear this going to lift off. I hope the Russians have better success than they have in the past at going to Mars–I’ve been wanting to see this mission happen for years.

  6. English Pole

    Blargh – you’re absolutely right. It’s the same in Polish:

    grunt = ground

    whereas:

    gleba = soil.

    It is true though that regolith (or regolit, Реголит) would be a much better name. Especially, as Russians avoid using the name with regard to anything even remotely earthly, saving it for heavenly bodies only.

  7. Amazing picture. That line of little craters looks like someone took a very large machine gun to Phobos.

  8. HRJ

    To me, it looks like smaller stones (impact remnants perhaps) rolled over the surface to form those grooves. That might explain why the grooves continue through the deep regions (like craters). If something was ploughing through, the grooves would not continue in the deeper regions, I suppose.

  9. Anonymous

    Apparently, the mission also brings a Chinese Mars orbiter (further solidifying China’s ascent in the world order) and Planetery Society’s LIFE experiment (ie. “can microbes survive a trip to Mars and back?”)

  10. Chris Winter

    Blargh wrote: “Also: my Russian is pretty darned rusty, but wouldn’t “грунт” (“grunt”) be more accurately translated as simply “ground”? “Soil” would be something like “почва” (“pochva”).”

    Hmmm… I wonder if this might be the derivation of the American slang term “grunt” (aka ground-pounder), meaning an infantryman. I know: I can ask Dr. Marina Orlova! (However, I doubt she’d respond.)

  11. Blargh

    Hooray! It’s nearing a decade since I last studied it. :)
    (I keep meaning to take it up again, but… you know how it is.)

    And if I understood the live stream’s narrator correctly, they’re still on schedule. Not long until launch now!

  12. Blargh

    Looks like it went perfectly!

  13. Launched on time… hope the 2 additional engine burns will go alright and that the mission will be on trajectory to Mars.

  14. Cairnos

    Cool, is everyone ready for the Martian Death Plague doomsayers?

    Also the obligatory “Has anyone asked Phobos for permission?”

  15. Blargh

    Cairnos: I wouldn’t worry about a Martian Death Plague. However, you might want to invest in a shotgun and chainsaw. And learn John Romero’s weaknesses. ;)

  16. David in England

    Sure hope it doesn’t have a space-rage incident with 2005 YU55…..

  17. Infinite123Lifer

    So Phobos is not dense/massive enough to attain a sphere shaped body? I believe it is called hydrostatic equilibrium?

    Also, is it absurd to think that the striations could come from interstellar travel “winds?” creating grooves where lightly packed material is then “blown off”?

    I was thinking that if many objects form together to make a larger object then there is going to be different materials of different consistencies. This could leave dusty borders (so to speak) which then could be blown off by simply traveling through space. Although I guess we would not get such a linear pattern of the grooves.

    However, thinking that collisions formed these striations would assume that a body was constantly in contact with the surface of Phobos to create such a linear groove. (perhaps under this reasoning the gravity of Phobos is able to keep a body ‘touching’ its surface as it skims over it and creates these grooves.

  18. Ben

    You may have spoken too soon. Indications surfacing that the escape burn failed and it is still in parking orbit around Earth. Roscosmos has been silent for a few hours now, no update.

  19. ellindsey

    Latest word is that the (first? second?) engine burn has not occurred (the probe is still in the pre-burn orbit) and they have lost telemetry from the probe.

  20. @ ^ ellindsey : Oh Nyet! That sucks. :-(

    If that’s correct then my commiserations and sympathies go to all those involved.

    *****

    Thinking Mars missions it’s getting near time for the launch of the Curiousity rover – formerly known as the Mars Science laboratory or MSL – now too.

    That’s been shifted onto the launch pad in readiness already according to the NASA website – click on my name here for source.

    Liftoff is scheduled for November 25th. Just 16 days, 55 minutes, 25 seconds till go for that one. :-)

  21. Wzrd1

    Aw, crapmuffins! Hope they can get the probe to wake up and burn at the right time to still complete its mission. :(

    As for the irregular scratch at that odd angle, I was hoping nobody noticed that fender bender… I was taking my turn at the helm of the USS Boobyprize and kind of sideswiped the moon while orbiting Mars. Damned thing swerved right into my path, I swear!
    There goes my starship pilot insurance rates through the roof!

  22. MichaelL

    Hopefully, the Galactic Ghoul doesn’t get it before it arrives!

    oops! It appears that may be the case.

  23. ellindsey

    Latest word from interfax is that the probe failed to make the booster burn because of a sensor problem. They have three days to upload new software and try again before the batteries go dead. This might still be salvageable.

    http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.interfax.ru%2Fsociety%2Fnews.asp%3Fid%3D215883

  24. Wzrd1

    Thanks, ellindsey! Now, hopefully, they don’t PMP Pro it into a failure… :/

  25. Infinite123Lifer

    For 21:

    Though operating a starship while drinking alcohol maybe fun! It is not allowed Wzrd1. Galactic penal code 180P.R.00.F clearly states this. Two warp drives have been deducted from your credit.

    Now lets get some software and hardware up and running :) or in this case, out of orbit and flying.

  26. Richie

    As Marvin the Martian himself says: “Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!”

  27. IW

    The Grunt is still in trouble as of this morning. It’s yet another case of the Russian space program running into trouble when trying to get to Mars. As others have indicated it’s apparently a software issue.

  28. Hugo

    Update from Russianspaceweb:

    “On November 9, at 01:17 Moscow Time, a project representative reported that telemetry from the spacecraft had been received, confirming that onboard batteries had been recharging and the spacecraft had been oriented toward the Sun. Russian military tracking assets and NASA ground facilities were reportedly involved in the mission.

    November 9 operations

    Only on the afternoon, November 9, Roskosmos issued an official press-release stating that two first post-launch contacts with the spacecraft had showed normal operations of the spacecraft according to the flight plan. However engine firings planned beyond the range of ground stations did not take place. Currently, all necessary parameters of the spacecraft motion had been determined, the statement said, however due to low orbit of the spacecraft it would not reenter the range of Russian ground stations until 23:00 Moscow Time (14:00 EST) on November 9. Based on the analysis of data, Roskosmos promised to prepare and upload onboard all necessary commands for the resumption of orbital maneuvers. Most importantly, the agency assured that a more accurate estimate of the mission’s orbital parameters and power supplies onboard the spacecraft had provided two weeks for the transmission of new instructions to Phobos-Grunt.”

    Link: http://www.russianspaceweb.com/phobos_grunt_launch.html

  29. captain swoop

    So that’s about 16 attempts by Russia since the 60s to have a Mars mission that works completely.

  30. Blargh

    :(

    At least it’s managed to orient its solar panels towards the sun and is charging its batteries. That buys Roscosmos/Lavochkin/IKI RAN some time to fix the issue.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    Dave Shaw (2) said:

    Dr. Plait,
    A question about the image: There appear to be a variety of linear striations across the surface of the moon. What causes these? Some are vertical while others are horizontal.

    The BA said:

    . . . its surface is weird, as you can see in the picture above. It’s lined with grooves, which may have formed when asteroid impacts on Mars below blasted up material, which the tiny rock then plowed through. That’s still being argued about. A sample return might help resolve issues like that (for example, finding clear evidence of Martian minerals in Phobos samples).

    Er, Dave, you did read the OP, right?

  32. Hugo

    Another update from Russianspaceweb:

    “At 16:35 Moscow Time (7:35 EST), a poster on Astronomy.ru web forum reported that new attempts to escape Earth orbit would be conducted between 03:00 and 05:00 Moscow Time on Thursday, November 10 (6 p.m. – 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday). According to Interfax news agency, Phobos-Grunt was expected to enter the range of Russian ground control stations at around 21:30 Moscow Time (12:30 p.m. EST), however only a ground station in Baikonur was equipped to downlink all necessary telemetry data and transmit new commands for the upcoming maneuver.”

    Wish them luck!

  33. drbubbles

    I believe this maintains a 100% failure rate for Phobos-destined (wholly or in part) missions. Because that is so statistically unlikely, the only logical explanation is that space aliens are interfering with Phobos missions in order to protect the secret space-alien secrets to be found there.

  34. ceramicfundamentalist

    Some sources are saying “Crippled Russian space probe could crash back to Earth” and “most toxic falling satellite ever”. Any thoughts, Phil, on when exactly we should begin to panic?

  35. zadoc

    POLL: Will Russia be able to save the Mars Phobos-Grunt probe?
    Vote: http://www.wepolls.com/p/4857067

    I seriously doubt it, but I really hope they can. The idea of a return mission from Phobos is really exciting to me.

  36. mikie burkhart

    Good this will put an end to what the UFO crowd thinks about Mars two moons : that they are artifical satellites launched by Martians. You know I’d like to stand on Mars at night and see two moons in the sky ,may be some future space probe could get a photo of the night sky on Mars with its two moons. Lets take it up with NASA.

  37. alfaniner

    I can’t be the only one that thinks “Phobos Grunt” makes a great band name?

  38. CraterJoe

    Toxic Satellite + Extremophile Microbes + solar radiation = Zombie Apocalypse.

  39. Blargh

    @ 34. ceramicfundamentalist

    Some sources are saying “Crippled Russian space probe could crash back to Earth” and “most toxic falling satellite ever”. Any thoughts, Phil, on when exactly we should begin to panic?

    Most toxic falling satellite ever? I doubt it.
    (Read up on Kosmos 954 in particular)

  40. Blargh

    Sadly, it looks like Phobos-Grunt is now beyond rescue. :(

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