What happened to Phobos-Grunt?

By Phil Plait | January 17, 2012 11:05 am

On Sunday, January 15th, 2012, the Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt fell to Earth after a failed attempt to get it to Mars. It burned up in our atmosphere some time around 18:00 UTC, though the exact time isn’t clear.

During its final orbit, I did a live video chat on Google+ with my friend, science journalist Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society, and we talked about the probe. The entire discussion is now on YouTube:

It’s an hour and a half long, as we were following the news and rumors of the probe in real time. The big question the whole time was: where and when did the probe fall?

It’s a good question. Moving at 8 km/sec (5 miles/sec) as it came in, it covered a lot of territory — as you can see in the map above showing the final track of the spacecraft. And since the final moments apparently happened over the Pacific ocean and southern South America — places where there aren’t many observers — it’s not at all clear just where, or even when, the spacecraft came in. As Emily and I discussed in the video, it’s possible that the US intelligence people may know, since there are many spy satellites that observe the Earth and may have seen the spacecraft’s demise. However, understandably, the government may not want to release that data. Or even acknowledge it.

Even now, days later, it’s still not clear what’s what. The Russian Space Agency and news organizations have released statements I find a bit difficult to swallow, to say the least — like this one "suggesting" US military radar damaged the spacecraft, or this statement from Vladimir Popovkin — the chief administrator of the Russian space agency Roscosmos — suggesting foreign sabotage. Seriously.

Sigh.

Emily has a solid wrapup of what’s known right now. I’ll post more if we find out more, but it seems unlikely. The Earth has a lot of real estate, and even with seven billion people we’re spread relatively thinly across the surface. We may never find out what happened with Phobos-Grunt, which is too bad. The more we learn about how and why spacecraft fail, the more likely we can prevent such problems in the future.

Image credit: Robert Christy, the Zarya website


Related posts:

- Phobos-Grunt to come down today
- Doomed Russian Mars probe seen from the ground
- 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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Comments (33)

Links to this Post

  1. Phobos-Grunt: one look and gone! « The Merlin | January 17, 2012
  1. Timmy

    My familiy and I were on a beach near Charleston, SC this weekend and saw an amazing shooting star. It moved completely across the sky from the South to North-Northeast and lasted 5 to 7 seconds! I thought it was Phobos-Grunt, but it’s doubtful. At any rate I have a 7-year old who is now hooked on astronomy!
    I also saw a fantastic meteor breaking up in the sky on Halloween night in Charlotte, NC. So I have been incredibly lucky lately!

  2. RL

    I think it was Gary Seven.

  3. Tony Mach

    “As Emily and I discussed in the video, it’s possible that the US intelligence people may know, since there are many spy satellites that observe the Earth and may have seen the spacecraft’s demise. However, understandably, the government may not want to release that data. Or even acknowledge it.”

    I’m calling conspiracy theory on this one. Show me the supporting evidence that the US has a system of satellite capable to do that.

    :-)

  4. Soundman

    No doubt those questions about sabotage were raised on the Russian version of Fox News.

  5. MichaelL

    I read the article about the radar possibly damaging the electronics on the probe. The question I have is this: If an earth based radar did damage the probe (my understanding is it was a radar based in the Marshall Islands tracking an asteroid), how could this probe have possibly survived the harsh radiation environment of deep space? It seems like the Russians are playing a bit of a blame game here and trying to deflect criticism away from their own failing space program.

    @Tony Mack, I’m sure these satellites, or ones like them could have imaged Phobos-Grunt re-entering. Even astronauts aboard the ISS have taken pictures of space craft re-entering.
    http://www.spacetoday.org/Satellites/YugoWarSats.html

  6. Richard Woods

    @4 MichaelL

    “If an earth based radar did damage the probe (my understanding is it was a radar based in the Marshall Islands tracking an asteroid), how could this probe have possibly survived the harsh radiation environment of deep space?’

    There’s a difference between random radiation and focused intense narrow-band that might be tuned (accidentally or otherwise) to resonant frequencies of satellite circuitry, but …

    “It seems like the Russians are playing a bit of a blame game here and trying to deflect criticism away from their own failing space program.”

    … yes, of course they are.

  7. Chew

    Phil, what is the website that showed the ground track, sunlit and dark areas, and the range of visibility from the ground with a zoomed view on the left and the whole Earth on the right? I used that Google map looking thingy but it kept freezing up due to the high traffic.

  8. Chew

    At low Earth orbit altitudes (200~700 km) the density of the atmosphere can vary by a factor of 600. That’s why it’s so hard to predict orbital decays.

  9. Robert

    The two US radars normally used to track asteroids are Goldstone and Arecibo, neither of which are in the Marshall Islands. Phobos-Grunt was launched when observations of 2005 YU55 were being carried out (presumably the asteroid in question), but did not come close to where either of them would have been transmitting.

    The Marshall Islands are home to ALTAIR (ARPA-Long Range Tracking and Instrumentation Radar) and ALCOR (ARPA Lincoln C-Band Observables Radar). Either of these could have been observing YU55.

  10. KC

    @ Tony — No the US does not have an all-seeing net of spy satellites that can track every speck world-wide. But certainly weather and other types of remote sensing satellites have recorded meteors and reentering space junk. The GOES-11 satellite picked up a trail from a small meteor back in 2010. Surely something as big as Phobos-Grunt could have been imaged, if a satellite was pointed at the right place at the right time..

  11. MadScientist

    Bah – it’s obvious that Marvin the Martian disabled the spacecraft because he didn’t want Paparazzo in his neighborhood. There’s no conspiracy – just a few angry Martians.

  12. Robert

    I understand from a colleague working in the field that Phobos-Grunt did not come close to YU55 as viewed from the Marshall Islands (or, rather, it only came close to YU55 when both were below the horizon). As that’s the asteroid everyone was looking at, the possibility that P-G was zapped by a radar in the Marshall Islands (or anywhere else in the US) that was observing an asteroid can be pretty much ruled out.

  13. What possible motivation would anybody have for disabling a research mission? Even if “how” is conceivable, “why” escapes me. It sounds like engineering management overlooked something that should have been considered in the design and they’re just being babies about it.

  14. Fellswoop

    Geez, soundman, even this story has to have a political dig?

    Tony, I don’t think it’s conspiracy thinking to suggest saying that operators of military surveillance sats might not acknowledge it if they had seen it. Even seemingly innocent statements can reveal more than intended about capabilities.

  15. Fellswoop

    Oh, and yes, the Russians are just being crybabies. Someone involved with the mission admitted the PG wasn’t fully sorted, but that they took the chance because they didn’t want to miss this launch window. (read it in the last 2 weeks, but cannot for the life of me find the article…anyone else remember it?) But now suddenly it’s US Death Rays.

  16. Brian Too

    To our Russian friends: Mars has eaten a lot of probes. It’s actually kinda famous for doing so and there is a cartoon Mars Monster on a wall somewhere at NASA (or maybe it’s JPL). Something like 1 in 3 missions to Mars fails completely. That covers all launch-capable organizations.

    You know this. We know this. So when you come up with a improbable suggestion that “foreigners” did it (worst of all the US, you guys have a history), it just sounds lame. And defensive. And xenophobic.

    Now get off your *ss, figure out what went wrong, and start working on Phobos-Grunt 2. It was a great idea and we want to see what it can produce. Just remember that the Mars Monster is still waiting!

  17. Chet Twarog

    Great audio/video between Phil and Emily and her child.
    Perhaps try to use, maybe impracticable, R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Wall Map though tougher to do orbits. However, it’s a great wall display and can be folded into a “globe”.

  18. Mike Saunders

    What happen?

    Somebody set us up the bomb.

    In AD 2012

    War was beginning

  19. @10. KC :

    @ Tony — No the US does not have an all-seeing net of spy satellites that can track every speck world-wide. But certainly weather and other types of remote sensing satellites have recorded meteors and reentering space junk. … [Snip - ed.] Surely something as big as Phobos-Grunt could have been imaged, if a satellite was pointed at the right place at the right time..

    Big *if* but I hope so! :-)

    Even if we have do have to wait many years for any images to be declassified before we get to see them.

    The GOES-11 satellite picked up a trail from a small meteor back in 2010.

    Astronaut Ron Garan photographically captured this meteor from aboard the ISS :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/08/15/what-a-falling-star-looks-like-from-space/

    Another great example here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/11/03/video-of-the-progress-re-entry/

    Although this was an artificial exceptionally large metor also known as the Progress module. This time captured by another International Space Station astronaut Mike Fossum. :-)

    Plus here’s my all-time favourite, most astounding planetary re-entry object captured on film :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/05/26/best-image-ever/

    Of the Phoenix spaceprobe caught from orbit as it descended towards a perfect landing near the Martian north pole. :-)

    PS. There’s another wonderful version /image of that showing the broader perspective with Phoenix flying over a crater linked to my name here – via The Guardian newspaper.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wikipedia (see it whilst its still on – 24 hr blackout due in less than an hour now) has this :

    Media reports based on information provided by military sources claim that Phobos was somewhere over the Pacific between New Zealand and South America shortly before 18:00 UTC when re-entry occurred. On January 15, 2012 the Russian military reported that the Phobos probe had re-entered the atmosphere at about 17:45 UTC.[55] Although it was initially feared its remains would reach land as close as 145 km west of Santa Fe, Argentina, the Russian military Air and Space Defense Forces reported that it ultimately fell into the Pacific Ocean, 775 miles (1,247 km) west of Wellington Island, Chile.[56] However, the Defence Ministry spokesman subsequently revealed that such estimate was based on calculations, without witness reports. In contrast, Russian civilian ballistic experts cited by RIA Novosti said that the fragments had fallen over a broader patch of Earth’s surface, and that the midpoint of the crash zone was located in the Goiás state of Brazil.

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phobos-Grunt#Re-entry

    @4. Soundman : January 17th, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    No doubt those questions about sabotage were raised on the Russian version of Fox News.

    I don’t know about that but they were reported & taken at least semi-seriously on space-dot-com – see :

    http://www.space.com/14193-russia-phobos-grunt-space-failures-foul-play.html

    for that.

    @ 16. Brian Too :

    To our Russian friends: Mars has eaten a lot of probes. It’s actually kinda famous for doing so and there is a cartoon Mars Monster on a wall somewhere at NASA (or maybe it’s JPL). Something like 1 in 3 missions to Mars fails completely.

    Indeed. See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Solar_System_probes#Mars_probes

    when wikipedia is working.

    Phobos 1, Mars Observer, Mars 96, Nozomi, Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, Deep Space 2, Beagle 2, and now Phobos-Grunt joins that sad list of proes that have fallen victim to the Martian space ghoul. :-(

    Pretty sure that means Mars is statistically the hardest planet for humans to send missions to. Which is quite odd really considering its the second-nearest and, arguably (besides Earth itself) most earth-like of all the planets in our solar system. I suppose Mars probably has had the most missions dedicated to it but still.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    Aaa-aand wikipedia is now out for 24 hours :

    Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge
    For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.

    4 pm Adelaide Aussie time / 10.30 pm BA blog time.

    Good talk BA. :-)

    There a few very minor sound quality issues. Nothing too bad though. Could even have been an issue at my end?

    As Emily Lakdawalla said a sad day for the scientists involved – &, well, all of us really. :-(

    I hope there are plans for a replacement mission along similar lines announced soon. Anyone know what the chances of that are?

    @18. Mike Saunders :

    What happen? Somebody set us up the bomb. In AD 2012 War was beginning.

    Umm, Dude, what the ..?! :-o

    What’s happened is the unfortunate end of the Phobos-Grunt space probe tomars nothing to do with bombs or wars. It is 2012 although I gather the modern convention is to use Common Era or C.E. as the abbriev. rather than Anno Domini. As for wars there are always wars going on in our world and have been throughout human history with maybe a rare break between them. No new war has yet broken out so far this year far as I’m aware. On-going global conflicts however are totally irrelevant to this thread. Not sure what point you had in mind with your comment there.

  22. Nigel Depledge

    @ Bertrum (21) -
    I was thinking the same thing.

    Unless the BA is intending to go to Scarborough Fair . . . ?

    BA – Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

  23. Barry Murphy

    Why Scarborough? Its obvious really. Some people have difficulty recognising the Phobos path relative to continents, but everyone knows where Scarborough is.

  24. Bernardo

    The Russians are saying that it fell here on Brazil, on the state of Goias.

  25. In Russia, conspiracy theorizes you!

  26. @21 MTU: Regarding Mike’s comment, that’s text from the same old video game intro sequence that the “All your base are belong to us” meme came from :)
    /The moar you know…

  27. Brian Too

    @20. Messier Tidy Upper,

    That’s quite a list of failed missions, 9 in all. Idle curiosity, I wonder how much money was invested in all those spacecraft? It has to be around a billion US greenbacks! Ouch.

    Well you know what they say. No guts no glory. The successful missions are not just built upon the prior successes but the failures as well.

  28. Adrock

    I live near Scarborough. Weird.

  29. SkyGazer

    I hate to tell you guys the thruth, but here it is.
    http://www.redorbit.com/news/space/1112441373/russia-blames-haarp-transmitter-for-phobos-grunt-failure/
    (If this post get´s posted it is true, Dr.Phil would never ever let someone post something that´s untrue).

  30. Tom Backhouse

    @30 Adrock I also live near Scarborough! In fact, I was born there.

  31. Matt B.

    @18. Mike Saunders:
    What you say? ;)

    (BTW, I think it’s “Someone set up us the bomb.”)

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