Tag: Phobos-Grunt

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.


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

Phobos-Grunt to come down today

By Phil Plait | January 15, 2012 6:45 am

[Update 2 (18:40 UTC): According to the US Strategic Command, Phobos-Grunt re-entered over the Pacific ocean, not far west of Chile. This is unconfirmed, but STRATCOM is usually quite reliable. As I write this, I’m pretty sure the spacecraft is down, and hopefully we’ll know more about where it came down in the next few hours.]

[Update 1 (15:50 UTC): The predicted re-entry time is now around 17:20 UTC or so, but still not exact (Eastern US time is UTC – 5 hours, so 12:20 in the afternoon). The Russian space agency Roscomos has created a map of the predicted final orbit:

That’s over more land than I would’ve expected, but still lots of water. And remember, even if it falls over land the odds of it hitting anyone are incredibly low. Follow PhG_Reentry and me on Twitter for constant updates.]

I’ve been referring to Phobos-Grunt as "the doomed Russian space probe". Today, that name gets verified: it’s due to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere today, sometime around 18:30 UTC (plus/minus 3 hours), though the exact time is still unsure.

Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society has an excellent blog post with lots of details on what we know. Basically, the third stage on the rocket failed to ignite, stranding the spacecraft in Earth orbit. The air is thin up there, but still exerts a small force, dragging the spacecraft’s orbit lower and lower. In the past few months it’s been dropping, and sometime today it will get low enough that the Earth’s air will consume it.

Since there are too many variables in the re-entry, it’s impossible to know when it will come down with any real accuracy until right before the actual event. And since it’s moving at about 8 km/sec (5 miles/sec), being wrong by five minutes in time means a difference of 2500 km in distance. That’s half the width of the US, so that’s why it’s not known where it will come down. Since the Earth is mostly water, the chances are it’ll drop into the Pacific, but that’s just statistics. We don’t know for sure.

If you want constant (and somewhat technical) updates, follow PhG_Reentry on Twitter. As we get more info, I’ll update this post, as well as tweet about it and post on Google+ too.

Related posts:

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

MORE ABOUT: Phobos-Grunt, re-entry

Google+ astronomy weekly roundup video now online

By Phil Plait | January 6, 2012 9:00 am

Yesterday, I was in a live video chat session with several other scientists and science journalists. I wrote up the details of it yesterday, and it went pretty well! We had a lot of fun talking about the new GRAIL Moon mission, the fiery future return of Phobos-Grunt, 2012, and of course President Obama’s purported teleportation trip to Mars many years ago.

Wait, what?

Well, if you wanna know more, now you can: the video’s online.

The plan is to do these every week on Thursdays, and have a rotating cast of characters over time. I hope you like it. And I strongly suggest people join up over at Google+. I really like it there, and post quite a few things you won’t see here or on Twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

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 Heavens-Above.com.

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


Best video of Soyuz rocket burning up so far

By Phil Plait | December 26, 2011 7:00 am

Assuming you had other things on your mind this past weekend, you may have missed the foofooraw of a Russian rocket booster that re-entered over Europe on Saturday. It was part of a rocket that took new crew up to the International Space Station a few days ago, and was expected to come back down at that time. It was seen by a lot of people, because it happened at 5:30 p.m. local time on a clear night, so a lot of folks were out. It was also bright and spectacular… as you can see for yourself in this amazing footage taken in Germany:

Pretty cool, isn’t it? Make sure to set it to the highest resolution, and make it full screen. When it’s in focus (cameras sometimes have a hard time focusing on objects at infinity) you can see parts of the booster breaking off and making their own trails as they burn up. The bright star passed by the fireball is Jupiter (the two stars above it are part of Aries), and then you can see it pass under the Pleiades, and then the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus.

There are lots of other videos of this amazing event; a search on YouTube will show you quite a few. This one shows the smaller pieces better than any video I’ve seen so far, though.

Things like this happen pretty often, but not generally over heavily populated areas at such an opportune time in the evening. To my knowledge, no one has ever been seriously hurt or killed by falling debris like this; what you’re seeing is happening very high in the atmosphere, and most of the pieces burn up. Keep in mind, too, the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft — which was supposed to go to Mars, but never left Earth orbit — will be coming back down in early January. Reports on exactly when still vary a bit, and we don’t know where it will re-enter. I’ll have more on that when I know more.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space

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.

MORE ABOUT: ESA, Phobos, Phobos-Grunt

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.


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

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