Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft Fails to Make Two Engine Burns

Technicians put final touches on the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Russians controllers are working on backup procedures after the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft failed to make two schedule engine burns required to get it out of Earth orbit and on a path to Mars. RIA Novosti quotes Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin (translated from Russia via Google Translate):

“We’ve had a bad night, we could not detect long spacecraft, now found his position. It was found that the propulsion system failed. There was neither the first nor the second inclusion,” said Popovkin.

According to him, it is possible that the spacecraft “could not shift from the Sun to the stars.”

“The track complex, could it be that has not been given the command to activate the sensors, propulsion system,” said Popovkin.

He stressed that this is a freelance situation, but it’s working, it was foreseen in the design of the project, and was envisaged course of action in this situation.

“We will surcharge program spacecraft. The orbit on which the unit – support, no tanks are not dumped, no fuel was spent,” said the head of the Russian Space Agency.

He added that the time to restart the program from the experts there for three days.

Apparently, if the solar panels are not properly pointed at the Sun, the engineers have three days to fix the problem before the batteries die.

More on the story as it develops.

UPDATE – 22:56 PST – 11/08/11: Nickolai the Russian Guy has posted a better translation of this under the comments section. Based on this and other reports, here’s what is known:

  • Spacecraft appears to be in a safe mode in a stable orbit and communicating with the ground
  • Roscosmos is hopeful that this is a software problem that they can fix by uploading new instructions
  • The situation with the solar panels appears uncertain – they might not have deployed properly or may simply not be correctly oriented toward the Sun to properly charge the batteries
  • Controllers have three days to fix any problems with the solar panel orientation before the spacecraft’s batteries die
  • If there are hardware problems instead of software difficulties, then the mission is likely doomed.

Anatoly Zak has a good account of what is known so far at He notes that one early hint that the mission was experiencing problems was the curt notice on the Roscosmos website noting the successful launch of the probe with no details of mission progress.

  • Yikes, what a translation. Here’s a better one:

    “We had a tough night, we could not find the SC for a long time, now we have located it. It appears that the propulsion system did not work as expected, neither the first nor the second burns were completed”

    He says it’s possible the spacecraft “could not reorient from the Sun onto the stars”

    “It’s a complex procedure, it’s possible the sensors did not give the command to activate the propulsion system”

    He stressed this is an off-nominal situation, but it’s workable, it was considered during the development of the project, and a number of possible corrective actions were considered.

    “We will reload the program onto the spacecraft. Its orbit is stable – no tanks have been jettisoned, no fuel has been expended”

    He added that flight controllers have 3 days to reload the spacecraft’s programming.

  • So, it’s possible they’ve got a software bug? All those years of work, and the software on the critical burns are buggy? Eeegads!

  • Better hope it’s a software problem. At least then the mission might be salvaged. Hardware problem? Kiss Mars (and Phobos) good-bye.

  • Marcus Zottl

    As much as I would hope for a software glitch I somehow doubt it given the circumstances.

    As Doug has already pointed out: all those years, yet the software doesn’t work?

    (But then NASA has lost Mars Polar Lander due to a poorly tested touchdown sensing logic, Mars Climate Orbiter due to the infamous metric and imperial units mix-up and ESA has lost the first Ariane 5 because the reused part of the Ariane 4 Software without testing it under proper conditions…)

    So fingers crossed for a successful recovery!