ESA writes off Phobos-Grunt

By Phil Plait | December 2, 2011 2:07 pm

The Russian space probe Phobos-Grunt was an ambitious attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars, land on its moon Phobos, and return a sample to Earth. However, once it achieved low-Earth orbit after launch in November, the rocket that would have sent it on its way to Mars failed to fire, stranding the probe here at Earth. There have been numerous attempts to communicate with Phobos-Grunt, but they have been met with very limited success and most usually failure.

And now another nail has been driven in the coffin: the European Space Agency, which was tasked with spacecraft communications during the cruise phase to Mars, has announced they will no longer try to talk to Phobos-Grunt, declaring the mission "no longer feasible". Ouch.

NASA joined in the effort to talk to the probe, but had to abandon those efforts when the antennae were needed for other missions. It’s unlikely Russia will give up on the mission soon, but my own opinion is that the outlook’s pretty bleak. If they can’t get the probe on its way, or even boosted to a higher orbit, it’ll burn up in an uncontrolled re-entry over Earth sometime in February. The Russians are saying the fuel onboard will burn up as well and shouldn’t pose a threat to people on the ground. I expect we’ll be hearing more about that as time goes on.

I’ll note that Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, launched successfully recently and is looking good as it heads to Mars, so there’s that.

As usual, you should follow Emily Lakdawalla on her blog and on Twitter for current info on all things involving planetary space missions.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: ESA, Phobos, Phobos-Grunt

Comments (40)

  1. :(
    (But yay for Curiosity!

  2. This has been heartbreaking. This mission was so exciting. Now it just casts even more of a shadow over dependence on Russian hardware to get us to the space station.

    So what’s the Mars Curse success/failure ratio at now?

  3. Mike Saunders

    With Grunt failing and Curiosity going well (If it completes its mission on Mars, could still fail you know!) its still at 50%

    50% is not good :/

  4. Rick in TX

    Obviously, Phobos-Grunt was sabotaged by evil aliens to hide the fact that Phobos is an ancient spacecraft. I know it has to be true, Richard Hoagland said so.

    And now … back to reality.

  5. Richard

    @Mike: The Expensive Hardware Lobbing scorecard hasn’t been updated in a while, but the last update had Mars and Earth tied 20-20. The success of the DAWN flyby made it 20-21, and the failure of Phobos-Grunt brings it to 21-21. So yeah, still 50%, but it’s worth noting that Phobos-Grunt is the first failure in over a decade (depending on how you classify Mars Express and Beagle 2).

  6. QuietDesperation

    Thank goodness! We can’t have them there robots bringing back the Martian flu or Martian ebola or Martian syphilisaphus.

  7. Brian Too

    Seems like the Russians are having a bad run of problems in regards to their Mars missions.

  8. Specter177

    If it does start coming down, do you think the Russians will ask us (or try themselves) to shoot it down?

  9. Tom

    50/50 doesn’t make sense. The US has been largely successful with all sorts of missions in the past 15 years or so, Mars, Jupiter, Kuiper Belt, Saturn, outer solar system (Voyagers) and many spacecrafts keep working like it never failed until exhaustible dried up. Most failures occurred at the early stage, but they didn’t experience many spectacular failures as Russia. With 6 out of 7 Mars landings successful, the odd is that the US will land Curiosity safely, I bet. But Russia still have the human being’s space program going well. They should be proud of it. It is old and proven tech, and it works where and when it has to be.

  10. I wonder if it’d be possible for Russia to send astronauts to rescue the mission, the way NASA did with Hubble? Of course, the Hubble was made to be serviced in orbit, but still, there’s a first time for everything, right? :)

  11. Chris Wagy

    Hopefully Phobos-Grunt does not have an RTG (radioisotope thermal generator). Because burned up (oxidized) plutonium is pretty much worse than metallic plutonium.

    I wish I could find an official statement that is does not.

  12. Matt

    any way to track Curiosity on it’s route? I saw tweets with speed and distance but that info overlayed on a large black map would be cool. Throw in a blinking location and it’s all I could want.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Joseph G. : I think that would be verging on the impossible using a Soyuz. Don’t think they’ve got any craft capable of it. Maybe if they still had a Space Shuttle to try to capture, fix and release Phobos Grunt but we don’t anymore. Even if they did, it’d be pretty difficult to do I think.

    @7. Brian Too : Not just their Mars missions either. Can’t think of Russia’s last successful interplanetary (as opposed to Low Earth orbit) spaceflight and think its been quite a while. One of the Veneras back in the late 1970’s / early 1980’s maybe? Anyone know?

    @8. Specter177 : Not at all likely. What would be the point? It’d produce a lot of very short term space junk debris and chances of it causing any problems when it burns up in the atmosphere are remote. Guess where I think it’ll land? :

    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *

    Safely in the ocean like ROSSAT and the one before that. Assuming any of it survives to make it to a watery grave. Two thirds of the planet is ocean = two chances out of three that’s where Phobos-Grunt will finish up.

    *****

    Vale Phobos Grunt. Condolences to all those involved with it. Sad news. :-(

  14. josie

    Well there goes the invasion of Mars with our Waterbear Cavalry.

    I was really rooting for those lil’ tardigrades. I wonder if they’ll survive the extremes of re-entry :P

  15. @12. Matt : December 2nd, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    “any way to track Curiosity on it’s route? I saw tweets with speed and distance but that info overlayed on a large black map would be cool. Throw in a blinking location and it’s all I could want.”

    Not sure. Curiosity has a facebook page where I’ve asked for you – & others have asked for that as well – available via its NASA page which is linked to my name here.

    Latest news is that the craft is in good health and as the NASA site puts it :

    Excellent launch precision for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission has forestalled the need for an early trajectory correction maneuver, now not required for a month or more.

    That first of six planned course adjustments during the 254-day journey from Earth to Mars had originally been scheduled for 15 days after the mission’s Nov. 26 launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Now, the correction maneuver will not be performed until later in December or possibly January.

    “This was among the most accurate interplanetary injections ever,” said Louis D’Amario of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. He is the mission design and navigation manager for the Mars Science Laboratory.

    Oh & there’s 246 days till landing too.

  16. Blargh

    @ Chris Wagy

    Hopefully Phobos-Grunt does not have an RTG (radioisotope thermal generator). Because burned up (oxidized) plutonium is pretty much worse than metallic plutonium.

    … no it’s not. The main oxide form – PuO2 – is in fact the most stable and insoluble form of the element, which in turn means that it’s the form least taken up by the body. :)
    (Besides, the fuel pellets used in RTGs are plutonium dioxide already.)

    Inhaled Pu-238 is pretty nasty in any form though, and fine particles are worse than coarse ones. So there’s a whole bunch of cladding to prevent the fuel from dispersing in the atmosphere, should the worst come to pass – including cladding around each individual pellet.

    Oh, and Fobos-Grunt doesn’t have an RTG. It’s solar-powered.

  17. @ 13. Messier Tidy Upper:
    USA 193 was shot down in 2008 because 450 kg of fuel onboard was deemed too much of a risk. Fobos-Grunt contains 7 tons of fuel, which is quite an order of a magnitude more. So there is a point, if the shootdown of USA 193 had any valid point in it.

    Note that parts of Fobos-Grunt almost certainly will survive. It is a very large object. And the sample return capsule for example, was designed with a reentry in mind.

    Destroying Fobos-Grunt at 200 km altitude will eliminate the risk of the fuel tanks reaching earth surface, as well as large pieces of hardware reaching earth surface. Both the long and short term space debris hazard of such an exercise is minimal: most debris will reenter and burn up within hours and very little of it will be at altitudes where it is a danger to any spacecraft anyway. Again, USA 193 in 2008 is your analogue.

    Yet I don’t see it happen. The Russians made quite a negative fuzz about the USA 193 intercept in 2008, so knocking their own probe out of the sky now would cause some serious egg on their face (apart from the question whether they have the means for it). And I don’t see the USA knock out a Russian satellite without Russian consent.

  18. I think what they should do is release the frequencies and any kind of encryption codes or access protocols in the open. Let the amateurs give it a shot if it’s already written off. If someone else can get to it, sure would be nice to know what to do once contact was made.

    At least it wouldn’t be a total loss if someone else can control it. Heck, release all the information needed to contact GRUNT and put a stipulation in the information release that if contacted, a certain set of instructions needs to be sent and then contact information should be forwarded to a certain address / agency…

    Just a thought.

  19. Phobos-Grunt is propelled with unsym-dimethylhydrazine (mp = -58 C, bp = 63 C) and dinitrogen tetroxide (e.g., MON-3, mp = -15 C, bp = 21 C; /_H(fusion) = 14.67 kJ/mol or 38 cal/g). If the tanks are chilled for a couple of months in space, tonnes of oxidizer will freeze solid. There is then every expectation taht the frozen boulders will survive re-entry and shatter at ground impact. Hello… Battle of Ypres, downwind.

  20. vince charles

    19. Uncle Al Said:

    “If the tanks are chilled for a couple of months in space, tonnes of oxidizer will freeze solid. There is then every expectation taht the frozen boulders will survive re-entry and shatter at ground impact. Hello… Battle of Ypres, downwind.”

    Wrong again. The Fregat tanks are exposed, unlike USA 193. USA 193’s higher-melting-point fuel was shielded by _at_least_ two layers of spacecraft metal or carbon fiber (without including insulation), and thus had a reasonable chance of making it to low altitudes. (Whether it was frozen is another issue, dependent on circumstances and plain ol’ luck.)

    Phobos-Grunt/Fregat, on the other hand, has exposed tanks. In addition, the centroid of the stack will cause it to reenter tanks-first… especially since we know the solar arrays have deployed, shifting the CP. The stack has formed a textbook drag shape; Fregat’s unusual design also creates a stagnation “hot spot” between all tanks. Thus, the reentry will, at minimum, melt the frozen fuel (nitrogen oxides are, relatively, less toxic than UDMH) and will likely breach the tank skins. Even short of a direct aeroheating breach, both hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide will spontaneously decompose above a certain temperature, bursting their tanks on their own. Oh, and this is without any of the helium tanks turning to shrapnel.

    Even that was assuming that the propellants were frozen. As orbital decay takes numerous close passes, the skims just prior to full reentry will likely thaw any exposed tanks, as Fregat uses.

    What is it with you flying off the handle, after botching spacecraft engineering?

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/10/14/u-s-air-force-is-opening-up-rocket-contracts-for-competition/#comment-429142

  21. Samsam von Virginia

    Joseph G:

    Sending a crew to repair Phobos-Grunt would be roughly the equivalent of:

    1) Pull pin on hand grenade
    2) Release handle
    3) Repair grenade

    Repairing a rocket with 7 tons of fuel that was supposed to ignite, but hasn’t yet, seems a bit risky.

  22. vince charles

    You’re right, Samsam, especially since we know the power systems are energized (possibly cycling), and thrusters are occasionally firing automatically.

  23. @21 Samsam von Virginia: Heh, I didn’t really think of that. Quite a different proposition then installing hardware on the Hubble. Even if everything goes perfectly, if the thing ignites while you’re still tethered to it…

    Well, at least you’d be the first human to visit Mars :-P

  24. @18 Pikoro: I think what they should do is release the frequencies and any kind of encryption codes or access protocols in the open. Let the amateurs give it a shot if it’s already written off. If someone else can get to it, sure would be nice to know what to do once contact was made.
    At least it wouldn’t be a total loss if someone else can control it. Heck, release all the information needed to contact GRUNT and put a stipulation in the information release that if contacted, a certain set of instructions needs to be sent and then contact information should be forwarded to a certain address / agency…

    Heh, open source space exploration. I love it!!
    I agree. Even though it’s unlikely in the extreme that an outsider could pull something off that the Russian space agency couldn’t, ya never know. Maybe one of the engineers who worked on one of the components at the manufacturing stage will have a midnight Eureka moment. Stranger things have happened. The worst thing someone could do would be to make it re-enter, which it’s going to do anyway, right?
    (Just you watch – knowing both the evilness and ingenuity of the collective internet, someone will figure out how to draw giant dicks in the sky with the rocket exhaust, or something)

  25. Blargh

    @ Marco Langbroek

    USA 193 was shot down in 2008 because 450 kg of fuel onboard was deemed too much of a risk.

    Was anyone actually convinced by that argument? :)

    @Pikoro:

    I think what they should do is release the frequencies and any kind of encryption codes or access protocols in the open. Let the amateurs give it a shot if it’s already written off.

    Wouldn’t fly, if nothing else than for the liability issues if anything goes wrong…

  26. ND

    Apparently aliens have a passive aggressive hatred of Russians.

  27. puppygod

    USA 193 was shot down in 2008 because 450 kg of fuel onboard was deemed too much of a risk.

    Nope. It was a lame excuse to show off satellite interception capability.

    Was anyone actually convinced by that argument? :)

    Well, I guess some of the less educated voters…

  28. @17. Marco Langbroek :

    Fobos-Grunt contains 7 tons of fuel, which is quite an order of a magnitude more. So there is a point, if the shootdown of USA 193 had any valid point in it.

    Which as has been mentioned already eg. by ^ puppygod is questionable at least.

    Note that parts of Fobos-Grunt almost certainly will survive. It is a very large object. And the sample return capsule for example, was designed with a reentry in mind.

    Ah, of course. Good point – thanks. :-)

    Destroying Fobos-Grunt at 200 km altitude will eliminate the risk of the fuel tanks reaching earth surface, ..

    Wouldn’t the fuel tanks most likely explode and burn when subjected to the heating and shocks caused by atmospheric re-entry? I’d have assumed so but I may be mistaken naturally.

    …as well as large pieces of hardware reaching earth surface. Both the long and short term space debris hazard of such an exercise is minimal: most debris will reenter and burn up within hours and very little of it will be at altitudes where it is a danger to any spacecraft anyway. Again, USA 193 in 2008 is your analogue.

    Okay, fair enough, thanks. :-)

    Must admit I thought that the USA193 shoot down – as well as the Chinese one – had created quite a bit of space junk? Including some the ISS has had to dodge fairly recently.

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ See :

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/11/chinese_space_litter_threatens.php

    Via Greg Laden’s blog for more info on that last sentence.

    The BA has posted this on the destruction of USA-193 :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/02/28/spysat-update/

    which has more informative links off that and notes :

    only 17 pieces were being tracked

    Whilst Wikipedia’s article on the USA-193 “Operation Burnt Frost” :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USA-193#Destruction

    observes the different scenarios here :

    The Chinese test destroyed a target in a high, stable orbit, leaving a large amount of space debris in orbit, while the destruction of USA-193 in a much lower orbit would create debris that would likely deorbit within weeks. … 328 objects had deorbited (controlled and uncontrolled) in the previous 5-year period.

    Guess shooting down PHobos-Grunt would probably be more like the USA-193 case than the Chinese one so could work but don’t think they’re going to do so and don’t think we’ll have any major problem from its demise.

  30. Specter177

    “Must admit I thought that the USA193 shoot down – as well as the Chinese one – had created quite a bit of space junk? Including some the ISS has had to dodge fairly recently.”

    The Chinese one did, but USA193 was shot down at a low enough orbit that most of the debris re-entered within a couple weeks.

  31. Phil

    Glad to see I’m not the only one completely unconvinced by the Bush Administration’s stated rationale for shooting down USA193. Most spacecraft ever launched carried some flavor of hydrazine, either by itself or with nitrogen tetroxide as an oxidizer. Before they became the propellants of choice by the late 1960s, even nastier propellants were in use like red fuming nitric acid and aniline.

    Satellites in low orbit have been re-entering and burning up for decades. With the exception of Skylab, hardly anyone paid attention.

    These same propellants are also widely used by the upper stages of the rockets that launched them into orbit. The second stage of the Delta II, still a US space program workhorse, carries *six tonnes* of Aerozine-50 and nitrogen tetroxide. (Aerozine-50 is a 50-50 mix of straight hydrazine and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine).

  32. Anchor

    It’s a terrible disappointment. I ‘ve been looking forward to it for a long time and have been hoping they’d be able to pull the rabbit out of this hat. I feel particularly bad for the mission engineers and scientists who worked so hard and long designing and building that spacecraft, enduring so many problems and delays over the years. It would have been a truly spectacular accomplishment to land on and bring back samples of Phobos – and it would have gone far to revitalize their planetary exploration pursuits, especially their Mars exploration record. It woild have thoroughly busted up that silly superstition about a Curse of Mars. If Phobos-Grunt is finished, the outlook for the future of Russian Mars-exploration looks as bleak as a Siberian Winter.

    It’s strange that the Russians (former Soviet Union) have had such rotten luck with their Mars missions, whilst their Venus probes and landers have enjoyed far more success. Kind of weird they succeeded with Venus so often, given that such a cold-climate nation with its vast Siberian steppes, which routinely launches rockets under weather conditions that would give NASA engineers permanent ulcers, is rather akin to Mars.

    Though they are without a doubt happy for their American counterparts, the picture-perfect send-off of Curiosity can only add the sting of bitterness to their injured morale. Oh, what a world…what a world…

  33. Al Viro

    @13: Vega 1/Vega 2, probably. 1985-86 missions. Venus landers + balloons with atmospheric probes + Halley Comet flyby + collecting data for final orbital corrections for Giotto flyby of the same.

    After that all programs had terminal case of Proxmiring ;-/

  34. @Wagy, no RTG, otherwise the solar panels that they were worried about deploying in the beginning would have been useless, as the rtg is providing power even before launch, no solar needed…

  35. OneofNone

    @24 Joseph G.:
    The possible worst thing you can do with Phobos-Grunt is not just a premature re-entry.

    There are other objects in orbit, like valuable satellites or the ISS. PB has enough fuel to become a risk to any of them, if shot in the wrong direction. Dodging it around by a kid with a joystick does not convince me as responsible actions.

    Anyway, as I remember one of the problems is to get it in operating distance of your antenna system. And to do this for a time long enough for meaningful “discussion”. It is not just a matter of trying hard and sending the correct codes by chance.

  36. Egad

    > it’ll burn up in an uncontrolled re-entry over Earth sometime in February

    Early January.

  37. @35 OneofNone: I wouldn’t be too worried about an accidental collision, but you’re right, if there’s malicious intent, that could be very, very bad.
    And yeah, come to think of it, anything in an inclined, low-earth orbit, you have a relatively short window where you can contact the thing (and up to 12 hours in between passes). Amateurs would lack the global infrastructure to stay in (potential) radio contact.

    Phooey. Reality had to go burst my idealistic nerd bubble.

  38. @25. Blargh, @27. puppygod, @28. Messier Tidy Upper, @30. Specter177:
    Look at the careful wording of the second part of the sentence in question in my post #17…. ;-)

    This is a serious point of contention however, and in all fairness it is incorrect to suggest that everybody with some insight doubts the official reason for the USA 193 destruction.
    Some noted space analysts, like Jim Oberg, maintain that the official reason was indeed the true reason and relegade any other notions to the domain of conspiracy theories. Opinions are clearly thoroughly divided on this one.

  39. QuietDesperation

    Was anyone actually convinced by that argument?

    Plenty of people, some of them who know a lot about such matters professionally.

    Me? I really don’t care one way or the other. A test is a test. Data is data. Was there any real reason to be all bashful with USA193 when we are pretty straightforward about all our other intercept testing? Cripes, for a while it seemed they were launching something monthly out of Vandenberg and reporting on the intercept results.

    And why can’t *both* reasons can’t be true? They shot it down due to the hydrazine risk, and chose the location as a good demonstration to anyone who might be watching. :-)

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s neat that it worked?

    ————-

    Though they are without a doubt happy for their American counterparts,

    Well, maybe. ;-)

    the picture-perfect send-off of Curiosity can only add the sting of bitterness to their injured morale. Oh, what a world…what a world…

    Ah, they’re Russian. They’ll get over it.

  40. @39 QuietDesperation: And why can’t *both* reasons can’t be true? They shot it down due to the hydrazine risk, and chose the location as a good demonstration to anyone who might be watching.
    Am I the only one who thinks it’s neat that it worked?

    Thisity this. Nothing mutually exclusive about the reasons for doing it.

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s neat that it worked?
    Hell yeah! Kablooey! Pew pew pew! PFPFHHTTPKKKKCHHROOOOOOOOMMM!!!!!!!11111
    *ahem*


    >>the picture-perfect send-off of Curiosity can only add the sting of bitterness to their injured morale. >>Oh, what a world…what a world…
    Ah, they’re Russian. They’ll get over it.

    Also this. If stuff went for too long without sucking, they’d get suspicious that something was up :-P

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