Russians Race Against Time to Save Stricken Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft

A Russian poster for Phobos-Grunt. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Russian controllers are scrambling to upload new instructions to the Phobos-Grunt probe, an ambitious mission to Mars that is stuck in Earth orbit due to the failure of the spacecraft’s propulsion system. The rocket was launched early Wednesday morning Moscow Time (Tuesday afternoon in the United States).

There are contradictory reports concerning just how much time controllers have before the spacecraft is lost. An initial estimate of three days was later raised to two weeks. However, later quoted reports saying the original estimate is accurate:

Although the spacecraft was expected to remain in orbit for at least 10 days before reentering the Earth atmosphere, in just two days it would descent too low for the available propellant to raise its parking orbit and conduct another attempt to enter escape trajectory toward Mars, reports said.

At 16:35 Moscow Time (7:35 EST), a poster on web forum reported that new attempts to escape Earth orbit would be conducted between 03:00 and 05:00 Moscow Time on Thursday, November 10 (6 p.m. – 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday).

The mission got off to a good start as a Zenit rocket boosted the probe into orbit from Baikonur. Separation went cleanly; however, two planned burns designed to send Phobos-Grunt to Mars failed. Roscosmos officials are hoping that the problem is simply a software glitch; if there is a hardware failure, the mission will likely be lost.

The spacecraft is reported to be in good shape, with all of its fuel still on board and in communicate with the ground. The Russians are hampered by a lack of ground control stations around the world. reports that only the facility at Baikonur is capable of sending up new commands.

Phobos-Grunt is designed to land on the Martian moon Phobos, collect soil and rock samples, and return them to Earth. It will also conduct in-depth scientific investigations of Phobos and the Red Planet. The spacecraft is carrying a Chinese sub-satellite designed to orbit Mars.