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.