Popovkin Finally Provides Update on Phobos-Grunt, Flunks Basic Math

Phobos-Grunt in preparation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

After days of official silence, Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin provided an update on efforts to save the Phobos-Grunt probe, which has been stranded in low Earth orbit since shortly after its launch last Wednesday. In the process, he managed to flunk Mathematics 101 when discussing the success rate of previous missions to Mars.

According to media reports, Popovkin told reporters that:

  • controllers have not been able to establish communications with the spacecraft
  • Roscosmos have until early December to send the probe on its way to Mars before that becomes impossible
  • Phobos-Grunt will continue to orbit the Earth through January
  • The supply of toxic fuel on board is only 7.5 tons, not 10 tons as has been widely reported
  • The spacecraft poses little threat to Earth because it will burn up upon re-entry, destroying the vehicle and the fuel in the process.

It’s not clear from the news reports precisely how Russian controllers hope to communicate with the spacecraft. After reaching orbit, the spacecraft was on an automated program to fire its engines twice to send itself on a course to Mars. Neither engine firing took place. Several unconfirmed reports indicate that Phobos-Grunt is not configured to communicate with the ground until after the first engine firing raised its orbit.

Some experts have expressed concern that the fuel on board will freeze before re-entry, resulting in some of it surviving to reach the ground. The United States destroyed a crippled military satellite with the same type of fuel using a missile to prevent such an occurrence. It’s difficult to tell from the reports whether Popovkin addressed this possibility directly.

Russia’s top space official did flunk mathematics when discussing previous missions to the Red Planet.

“As to Mars – it is a planet that does not like earthlings. Only 30 percent of Soviet-Russian launches to Mars were successful, the Americans have had 50 percent success, while all attempts by Japan and Europe have failed so far,” he told reporters.


Japan’s one mission did fail, so he got that right. Europe’s lone expedition, the Mars Express orbiter, has been a spectacular success. The only failure associated with it was the loss of the small British Beagle 2 lander, which did not communicate with Earth after its release. The lander was not the primary goal of the mission.

The American record at Mars is 13-5, which is a 72.22 percent success rate. That includes going six for seven (85.7 percent) on the difficult task of landing on the Red Planet.  Of the 13 missions that succeeded, they all met — and in many cases, greatly exceeded — their original goals. NASA’s Opportunity rover is still driving around the surface nearly eight years after landing.

As for the 30 percent success rate of Soviet-Russian missions, this is probably being generous. Of the 18 previous missions to date, only a handful of them were partially successful. Most failed. They have not launched one fully successful mission to the Red Planet.

Mars’s reputation as an extremely difficult place to explore is largely a result of repeated Soviet and Russian failures. If you do things right, your missions will work. Fifty years on, the Russians are still trying to figure it out.

  • Ignoring your snarky comments at the end, most of your information is not coming from the official statement on the Roscosmos website: http://www.federalspace.ru/main.php?id=2&nid=18258

    In that statement, he claims:
    -The probe will be on orbit through January,
    -The launch window to Mars closes in December,
    -The difficulty in communicating with Phobos-Grunt, namely that they are trying to communicate with it in LEO using equipment that was designed for deep space communications. The problem there is that the large antennas cannot move fast enough to track the spacecraft, but work is underway to speed up the movement mechanisms. Currently each comm session is only 7 minutes long.
    -Currently all systems are working nominally (odd statement given the situation, but not necessarily incorrect), and the craft is sun-oriented.

    No where does he state anything about success rates, nor does he make any claims regarding the amount of fuel onboard the craft, although he does state the spacecraft poses no danger to Earth given that it will explode in the upper layers of the atmosphere.

    If you’re going to make bold claims regarding the capabilities of Russian space officials (or any officials) please at least cite your source, since the one you claim you cited does not contain the information you’ve listed.

  • Correction: The article I listed does not state that work is underway to speed up the movement of the tracking systems. This one, however, does: http://ria.ru/science/20111114/488192899.html

    It also states, curiously, that comms passed are 2 minutes long, not 7 minutes. However, it states that outside of quotes, which makes me lean towards the official statement from Roscosmos being correct, since it directly quotes Popovkin saying 7 minutes.

  • A couple of things to note:

    The “official statement” you point to is a reprint of an Itar-Tass account of a session that Popovkin held with the media. This is not what I would consider to be an official statement, nor does it seem to be even a complete account of the press conference. Unless I’m missing something, there has been only two official statements, both coming shortly after launch. One announced the launch, the other the engine problem. Both were done five days ago. And neither said very much. The result has been much speculation and some bad information.

    RIA Novosti has quotes from Popovkin’s press conference concerning the amount of fuel on board and the success rate of previous missions. http://en.rian.ru/science/20111114/168681455.html.I should have included the link.

    His statement, if quoted accurately, is wrong. I dealt with the Russian/Soviet record at Mars in an article in The Space Review last week. http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1964/1. I also researched the U.S. record, although I didn’t include a chart. But, if you look in the comments section, you’ll see that my analysis of America’s 13-5 record is correct.

    It’s good to know that the spacecraft is functioning normally. I did have fully understood in reading the article what the actual issue is with the communications passes. This provides some hope that the mission can be salvaged. I’m not sure why Roscosmos has not put out an official statement explaining this clearly. Holding a press conference and relying on media to communicate complicated technical issues to the public is always a bit dangerous.

  • OK, I’ve searched through RIA and found articles confirming the quotes you gave. However, it’s not like he stood up there and tried to explain to the world that 13/18=50%. It sounds like he was off-the-cuff and trying to give an idea of success rates. If you want to call him out on his historical knowledge go ahead, but there’s no reason to cite him for poor mathematics.

    Also, the itar-tass article breaks down the propellant load of the vehicle as follows: 7 ton 150kg of fuel, 1 ton 50kg of oxidizer, and 135kg of propellant in the return portion (not sure why they decided to cite that as 1 lump sum, perhaps it’s a monoprop return engine?), for a total of 8 ton 335kg. They claim their sources are Roskosmos and Lavochkin. So Popovkin said 7.5 tons of propellant (he uses the Russian “Toplivo” which means propellant in general), I guess you got him on that one.

  • Doug,
    Thanks for the post. A bit harsh, as Nickolai pointed out, but you raise some interesting points. One place I don’t think you’re fair is when you say

    “Mars’s reputation as an extremely difficult place to explore is largely a result of repeated Soviet and Russian failures. If you do things right, your missions will work.”

    This implies that the Russians are not as capable at sending probes to Mars as other space agencies and if you took them out of the picture the percentage would be higher. This sentiment ignores the fact that the USSR dominated the first decade of the Space Age. 13 of their failures took place before 1971 which I would say we can attribute quite a bit to their ambition early in the Space Age to attempt going to Mars, not that they were particularly bad at it. One can imagine that the first 12 missions to Mars, no matter who sent them, may easily have failed.

    I think a more sober assessment of the statistics would be if you take out the first decade, humanity has been fairly successful at going to Mars, it just took us a while to get the hang of it.

    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

    Mars mission graphic:

  • Well, OK, he didn’t fail math, he failed history. (As a history buff, I’m not sure that’s better, but….OK.) He also said that Europe had never succeeded at Mars, which I’m sure came as a surprise to anyone involved with Mars Express. It’s an ongoing mission that, aside from the loss of a small secondary payload, has been a tremendous success.

    I just watched an RT video in which the reporter repeated Popovkin’s assertions as to past mission success rates pretty much verbatim. They didn’t bother checking the record, either. I doubt very many other reporters did, either. It’s bad information that is out there that I think diminishes NASA’s and ESA’s successes. I’m sure that was unintentional on his part. But, if Charlie Bolden had made a similarly erroneous statement about Russia, I would have called him on it.

    I look at it this way. Is winning an NBA title hard? Absolutely. Can it be done? Yes. And done repeatedly. Look at the Lakers. It’s a well managed, well funded organization that fields great teams. They don’t always win, but they succeed regularly. Yet the LA Clippers — who play the same sport in the same league in the same building — have never won a title and rarely make it to the playoffs. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I see a similar divide in Mars exploration. The U.S. effort has been way above the Soviet-Russian one in terms of funding, quality and results.

    The Mars is really really really hard belief is useful to everyone. When you succeed, it’s Hey, we defeated the dreaded Galactic Ghoul. If you fail, it’s, “Oh look at hard this is to do.” In any event, maybe we shouldn’t be focused so much on numbers but what makes a successful Mars mission. But, that’s a topic for another day.