Doomed Russian Mars probe seen from the ground

By Phil Plait | January 4, 2012 2:21 pm

In November 2011, the Russian space agency launched the much-anticipated Mars probe called Phobos-Grunt (which means "Phobos dirt" or "ground"), which would go to the Red Planet, soft-land a probe on the tiny moon Phobos, and return a sample of the surface to Earth. Unfortunately, the booster that would take it from Earth orbit into a Mars-intercept trajectory failed to fire, stranding the spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Atmospheric drag has doomed the mission; it will most likely burn up sometime in the next two weeks.

Phobos-Grunt is visible to the naked eye as a bright star if it happens to pass overhead. Astronomer Thierry Legault, an expert in nabbing incredible images of objects in orbit (and no stranger to this blog!), traveled to Nice, France to observe it, and (as usual) got great video of it:

You can actually see detail in the probe; he provided a helpful picture to make it more clear:

The solar panels and other parts are pretty obvious.

Like UARS and ROSAT last year, Phobos-Grunt is making an uncontrolled re-entry, and it’s not entirely clear where it will fall. Odds are it’ll be over water, since the majority of Earth’s surface is ocean. The predictions I’m seeing look like it’ll be on or around January 15th. The actual location of re-entry won’t be known pretty much until the moment it comes down; it’s moving at several kilometers every second, so being off by a few minutes in the time means being off by thousands of kilometers in the location! There are a lot of variables involved too, including the orientation of the satellite (which changes the drag it feels from the atmosphere), solar activity (a solar storm can make the atmosphere puff up, speeding up the date of the spacecraft’s demise), and so on. I’ll write more information as I hear it.

In the meantime, you can check to see if Phobos-Grunt will pass over your location and you can see it; I suggest using

Image and video credit: Thierry Legault, used by permission. Slight edit of image done by The Bad Astronomer to compress it horizontally.

Related posts:

ESA writes off Phobos-Grunt
Phobos-Grunt scheduled to launch at 20:16 UT
Final: ROSAT came down in the Bay of Bengal
UARS official re-entry… and up next: ROSAT


Comments (36)

  1. Proesterchen

    Not to take anything away from Thierry’s truly awesome imaging capabilities, but how pathetic is it that 50+ years into the “space age” we’re stuck watching this probe’s demise, rather than having the means to fix it?

  2. Bizarrely, RIA-Novosti reports that the US Strategic Command says that it will fall in Afghanistan. I don’t understand why anyone would think they would know that a week in advance, or what the significance of it supposedly falling on Afghanistan is. Making the US look worse to Afghanis? But it’s a Russian spacecraft…

  3. Richard Brockie

    That is some stunning work. Awesome!

  4. mechbill2112

    Google Ads put a Psychic ad banner on your page. Irony.

  5. So, there’s a whole lot of some type of rocket fuel in this, and it’s going to burn up on re-entry. Does that suggest it’ll explode dramatically on re-entry? Or is the earth-orbit->light-touchdown-on-mars energy requirement small compared to earth-surface->earth-orbit (which would be released on reentry)

  6. How true Proesterchen! It is indeed pathetic!

  7. Radwaste

    Hmm. One of the associated videos YouTube puts up is of “things that shouldn’t be there” on Phobos. Whoo!

  8. John W

    What’s the big deal? All we have to do is go up there in the Space Shuttle and…oh wait….

  9. Chief

    re 5. Jeremy

    Well, If the fuel ignites, we can only hope that Kirk comes to the rescue.

  10. This video is heartbreaking. “Hello up there! We’d help you if we could. But we can’t. Sorry!” I would have really loved to see this mission succeed.

  11. marslover

    @Proesterchen & @Radwaste.

    I’m sure you are both here due to a shared passion for science. Perhaps your remarks on how pathetic this “uncontrolled entry” situation/mission failure have a positive side, in the sense that you want desperately for space exploration to further the boundaries of our knowledge, but i feel you are slightly off mark.

    I would be interested to hear what ideas you have for the Russian engineers, on how to implement a viable maintenance system to cater for situations like this. A few ideas spring to mind, but are all horribly impracticable. suggestions?

    Without discussing in depth, when looking at things like this, i tend to somehow always filter back to the so called “biggest picture”. putting things into perspective always makes me marvel at what we have done and what we are currently achieving.

    My rule of thumb goes (roughly) :

    first flight 200 years ago
    origin of text/writing 3000 years go
    first wheel 5500 years ago
    oldest know civilizations 12000 years ago.

    which then gets obliterated by the sheer scale of the earth timeline (and the idea of whats actually happening in this space mission) see . Spaceflight has only been around a few years and we are already exploring near bye planets.

    in any case, i just feel that we should admire the attempt, not voice unfounded comments like that!

  12. Tom

    How difficult/expensive would this be?

    A two stage orbiting satellite tug. Stage A is fitted with robotic arms, grapples, and anything else we think we could use to grab and anchor onto a disabled satellite, plus all necessary hardware like dishes and solar arrays. Stage B is a Soyuz derived tanker, just an engine and a large fuel tank, no crew.

    The tug is used to grab disabled sats, and either tow them back to the ISS for repair, or it lines up the disabled sat on a trajectory to get it into the atmosphere ASAP for quick incineration over the Pacific. No more waiting a few days to see when and where it comes down

    When the tug runs low on fuel, the empty stage B is discarded and burns up in the atmosphere (ala Progress), and a new stage B docks a day later.

  13. Wow! Thierry Legault strikes again :)

    If you look closely, you can see a forlorn robot arm extending to flip us the bird. At least, that’s what I see ūüėõ

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @2. greg :

    Bizarrely, RIA-Novosti reports that the US Strategic Command says that it will fall in Afghanistan. I don’t understand why anyone would think they would know that a week in advance, or what the significance of it supposedly falling on Afghanistan is. Making the US look worse to Afghanis? But it’s a Russian spacecraft…

    ________ …So it’s making the *Russians* look worse to the Afghanistani’s!

    (But via a Russian source assuming RIA-Novosti is as Russian as it sounds which, yeah , makes little sense.)

    This may have made sense back in the Cold War days when the Evil Soviet Empire existed. But in 2012 not-so-much. Putin’s Russia may not be our best friend and ally but we’re hardly antagonists like we used to be.

    I don’t know, maybe there is no significance at all to that just a really early preliminary estimate based on Phobos-Grunt‘s projected flightpath and rate of fall? Curious and a bit puzzling. We’ll have to wait ‘n’see how it turns out I guess.

  15. @#12 Tom: I do think that that at some point we’re definitely going to see that sort of thing (Google “Parom” for a Russian project designing a tug that ferries dockable and purpose-built containers) , but there are definitely obstacles to overcome for the sort of thing you describe. For one thing, a tug that can move a variety of oddly sized and shaped satellites will need to be able to finely adjust the sat’s position so that the tug’s thrust vector passes through the center of gravity of the tug/satellite combo. A lot of satellites are pretty delicate and don’t really have any attachment points, too.
    Also, the upper stage of the Soyuz uses liquid oxygen as the oxidizer (though it does have a non-cryogenic hydrocarbon fuel). It’d need to be redesigned have entirely noncryogenic propellants in order to loiter the way you describe, but that’s not really insurmountable.
    I’m not a rocket engineer, obviously, but I also think that you’d need a largish fleet of these in different orbits (like the GPS constellation) to really be effective. Otherwise, a single tug might need to use all its fuel just to change inclinations in order to rendevouz with a satellite at a much higher or lower inclination.

  16. @2. greg :
    Novosti-RIA took an early prediction by USSTRATCOM, *but* failed to note the uncertainty interval of 11 days on that prediction!
    They simply took the nominal time, ignored the very large uncertainty interval, and proceeded to quote the position where it would be at that nominal time (again, ignoring the 11 day uncertainty interval).
    Needless to say, with an 11 day uncertainty interval that position is meaningless of course.

  17. Dr. Strangelobe

    @Jeremy : it’s bad because the stage that would boost it out of LEO hasn’t used any of the tons of fuel in its tanks. Big boom, maybe.

  18. Andrei

    I just feel compassion for the Russian Mars program. They had their firsts, but they never (or almost never) had complete success on Mars. I can just imagine the frustration the science teams are experiencing. And I kind of deplore the fact that this probe went somehow unnoticed in the western media.

  19. Chief

    re Tom.

    It would be a workable solution to have a capture vehicle to retrieve damaged/faulty hardware but how to account for different sizes, extended solar panels and not knowing what the issue is to have caused a fault. I’m really not comfortable with the thought of taking a fueled spacecraft back to a manned station that has not triggered its booster engine due to whatever fault.

    I still think we should seriously look at a different launching system, ie magnetic induction rail launcher.

    (privately I’m hoping to see the space elevator in my lifetime…..)

  20. Pepijn

    This sort of thing always makes me feel so bad for the people involved. It must be crushing to work on something like this for years, put your heart and soul into it, only for it to fail. And not just fail, but fail in such an agonizingly long, drawn out way.

  21. ellindsey

    Honestly, even if we had the Space Shuttle still operating, and even if we somehow miraculously could have put together a mission and launch the Shuttle in time to get to Phobos-Grunt before the window to get to Mrs closed, it still wouldn’t make sense to try to send a mission to repair it. Phobos-Grunt has a large amount of fuel on-board in multiple different propulsion systems, many pyrotechnic devices not yet fired, spring-loaded arms and panels, and at least one radioactive source, all controlled by a malfunctioning, possibly deranged control computer that isn’t talking to ground control. There is no way to know exactly what state the control system is in, or how it might react to being nudged and moved by astronauts. It might respond to being grabbed by the manipulator arm by suddenly firing its maneuvering thrusters, ejecting parts, or possibly even firing the main booster and heading for Mars, taking the shuttle with it. The repair crew would have to treat it as if it were an unexploded bomb first. It wouldn’t make any kind of sense from a safety point of view to risk a Shuttle and crew for a probe whose replacement cost is less than the cost of a Shuttle mission in the first place.

  22. ah! Thank you, Marco, that makes a lot of sense. I wondered why the Strategic Command would issue such a ridiculously overspecific estimate.

  23. It sounds to me like Thierry Legault has way too much free time on his hands. Which, it turns out, is a good thing for us.

    In the meantime, you can check to see if Phobos-Grunt will pass over your location and you can see it; I suggest using

    Wow, timing is everything. According to, the only visible pass from here for the next 10 days is 35 minutes from now.

    Of course, being near mid-day, it’ll probably be too dim to see. :-(

    [edit]They show the time in UTC, so it was actually 5-1/2 hours ago. On the plus side, the ISS will pass at 65 degrees altitude about 20 minutes after sunset, which makes it prime time viewing. (Typically, it’s still lit by sunlight for part of the pass. BTDT.)

  24. mike burkhart

    It is always disapointing when probes fail. I was disapointed when the Mars polar lander crashed. NASA had a lot of its early rockets blow up the only thing to do is keep trying and don’t give up .

  25. Mike Saunders

    In addition, everyone who wants to repair it assumes it is broken. Nothing to do if it is the design that prevented the mission from continuing…

  26. Ken, heavens-above shows time in UTC by default if you’re not logged in and choose a place on the map without also choosing your time zone. The time zone choice is right below the map when choosing your observing location. But as a logged-in user, it will remember your default observing site (and you can switch between several).

    Also note the excellent .

  27. llewelly

    Excellent point, Mike.

    It stopped functioning by design; now the Russians will wait for the
    Chinese to beg for permission to use it for target practice. The
    Russians will charge them for the privilege.

    America will then complain having much more space debris to
    track. The Chinese will respond by offering to destroy the debris by
    shooting at it. The Russians will again charge for the privilege.

    Thus will begin an explosion in satellite to satellite target
    practice, a new frontier commercial space enterprise. Entrepreneurs
    will make great fortunes overnight, corporate empires will rise and
    fall the waves crashing in a great storm.

    And at every stage, space exploration will benefit from advanced
    technologies that flow from the comoditization of the orbital firing
    range. Customers will tire of firing on mere orbital junk, and desire
    to expand to asteroids, then comets, and thence to planets, and
    eventually exoplanets.

    Cheap interstellar travel will appear, driven by the need to enable
    customers to fire upon exoplanets. A new age will be born!

  28. Jeremy

    A question to all you space-nuts out there. While walking home from work last night, I looked up in the sky and lamented that I currently live 2,000 miles away from my telescope (but I’ll be heading home soon!) as I saw jupiter in the sky, and wanted to look at it.

    However, as I got closer to home, I realised that Jupiter was actually closer to the moon, and this super-bright object was not Jupiter. I fired up Stellarium, but could find nothing that brigt there. In fact, I’ve never seen anything that bright, so far as I remember.

    It appeared to be stationary from my point of view, and exhibited a bit of an odd ‘dimming’ process over one part of it.

    Given that it was, for the 4 minutes I was looking at it, stationary, is there any chance that was it?

    Edit: according to two tracking sites, it couldn’t have been, but I suppose they could be out of date as atmospheric drag brings it down? I’m not smart enough to know if the drag will also changes its orbit/viewable passes for my location.

  29. CraterJoe

    These comments have really drifted into the wierd.

  30. Jeremy,

    You mean there was something else, not Jupiter? The obvious bright things in the sky last night were Jupiter and Sirius. Facing S, Jupiter was below and to the right of the Moon, and Sirius much further below and to the left, in the SE. Depending, of course, on time and your location.

    It certainly wasn’t Phobos-Grunt, which is quite faint, nor was it the ISS, which is bright but moves very quickly (you could not mistake it for being stationary even over ten seconds). I think you saw Sirius, and were disoriented by it. I’ve been surprised myself at how high it is in the sky these days.

  31. January 15th? Heh… there’s a good chance I’ll be in an airplane when it reenters the atmosphere. Now *that* would be a spectacular way to witness the flaming death of a satellite.

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ namuol : Hmm .. You mean a view a bit like these airline passengers captured? :

    Or this fighter pilot got? :

    Of the Atlantis on it’s final launch. (Would love it if NASA showed video from the chase /patrol jets used in some of their launches like that ‘un.)

    Or, perhaps best of all, like these skydivers saw :

    as they were falling through the sky as the Space Shuttle Discovery – with the HST aboard no less – was simultaneously rising into space unencumbered by intervening materials! 8)

    @16. Marco Langbroek : Thanks for that enlightening info. :-)

  33. Dr. Strangelobe

    @ellindsey; Huh. Wait, what if the repair mission could carry a programmer team, or act as a relay station? Could they get the engines to fire and lift the bird, at least up to where it could be repaired, or at least not be an immediate danger?

  34. Egads, am I ever ecstatic I came to your blog. Good details!


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