Report: Phobos-Grunt Launch Window for Mars Closes Today

Phobos-Grunt in preparation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

RIA Novosti reports on some grim news for the Russian space exploration program:

The launch window to send Russia’s Phobos-Grunt unmanned spacecraft to a Mars moon will close on Monday, an airspace source told RIA Novosti.

“The spacecraft has already unfolded its solar panels and is in the so-called “barbeque mode,” the source said, speaking about the passive thermal control mode during which the spacecraft rotates slowly around its roll axis to prevent one side from continuous solar exposure and overheating.

“So, the ballistic window for Phobos-Grunt’s flight to Mars is limited by November 21,” he said….

Igor Lisov, editor of the industry magazine Cosmonautics News, said if contact with the spacecraft is established after the launch window’s closure, it could still be sent to the Moon or even to an asteroid.

However, he said there were almost zero chances to revive the station.

RussianSpaceWeb.com also reports that the launch window has already closed. These reports appear to conflict with an earlier statement from Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin, who indicated that controllers had until early December to save the mission.

These reports of the launch window closing cannot be verified. Roscosmos has posted only two official statements on its website, both on launch day almost two weeks ago.  Popovkin’s only comments about the mission came last week during a post-launch press conference for a manned Soyuz launch to the International Space Station.

The ambitious space probe has been silent since a failure of the propulsion system stranded it in low Earth orbit on Nov. 9. The spacecraft is not communicating with the ground, and all attempts to revive it have failed. RussianSpaceWeb.com reports on the search for the cause of the failure:

As of November 17, several failure scenarios have been put forward, but none of them could be proven in the absence of telemetry from the spacecraft. According to one theory, erroneous data from BOKZ star sensors could interrupt the operation of the the main BVK timer (sequencer). BOKZ were obviously first to be blamed since they had been off (as planned) during the initial phase of the flight (when first and only telemetry was received), while all other systems seemed to be operating normally. However, the flight clock could also fail, as could a number of other systems. A combination of several failures was strongly suspected.

In looking further into the RussianSpaceWeb website, I also found an interesting account about the controversial addition of a Chinese sub-satellite, Yinghuo-1, to the mission. The change was formalized only two years before the spacecraft’s initial 2009 launch date.

The decision to add the Chinese spacecraft to the Phobos-Grunt mission, dictated primarily by political rather than economic reasons, proved to be very controversial. Even thought the contract apparently required China to pay a modest amount for the integration of its satellite, the move led to a major redesign of the Russian spacecraft, putting additional pressure on the already tight launch schedule.

The propulsion unit on board the cruise stage of the Phobos-Grunt probe would no longer be capable of inserting itself and the Chinese satellite into the Martian orbit. Instead, it was now required to give the Fregat upper stage not only its usual role of sending its payload away from Earth, but also a job of slowing down and inserting the vehicle into its orbit around Mars. As a result, Fregat would have to be heavily modified to survive an interplanetary journey.

The task of attitude-control and orientation of such overgrown vehicle was transferred to the cruise stage, while the course correction functions during a cruise flight between Earth and Mars were “moved down” to the Fregat-based propulsion unit, which was renamed MDU.

According to the initial concept, the Chinese satellite would be placed above the main payload, however such configuration would require a major redesign of the spacecraft’s structure. After some debate, it was decided to move the Chinese spacecraft below the cruise stage. As a result, the propulsion system of the cruise stage would now be blocked until the separation of its late passenger.

The inclusion of the Chinese satellite also maxed out the capabilities of the Soyuz-2-1B rocket, prompting mission planners to switch to the Zenit rocket. However as an added bonus, the Zenit provided enough redundant lifting capability to launch the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft with its full complement of international payloads in the launch window of 2011, which would be less favorable then the primary departure time in 2009. If Phobos-Grunt remained on the Soyuz, it could not be launched with the Chinese micro-satellite in 2011.

All this is more evidence that this mission was badly planned and executed. The Soviet/Russian record at Mars is terrible, and the last time they sent spacecraft to the Red Planet that actually made it out of Earth orbit was in 1988. Both of those missions failed. So, although they are working with no recent experience, they still chose to launch an ambitious mission to return soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos. As if that’s not risky enough, they are forced to add a Chinese sub-satellite that requires a major redesign of the spacecraft and its propulsion system.

If they Russians want to rebuild their planetary program, they need to start small. Launch a simple mission, prove they can fully complete it, and then build from there. These great leap forwards are just going to lead to more heartbreaks.

RussianSpaceWeb.com repots that the mood in the Russian science community is grim as it does a lot of soul searching over this latest high-profile failure:

Sources at the Space Research Institute, IKI, and one of its partners abroad told the editor of this web site that projects like Venera-D, Luna-Resurs and Luna-Glob (all relying on hardware developed for Phobos-Grunt) had remained on track and, as of November 20, there had been no immediate decision to stop any of them.

As of the Russian return to Mars, most hopes were now riding with a European invitation to Russia to join the ExoMars mission… and save it from likely cancellation due to lack of funds.

That’s a grim prognosis for a space program whose interest in the Red Planet has always exceeded its grasp.

  • warshawski

    Late change in a complex project always causes problems be it a spacecraft, shipbuilding or a resource project.
    Trying to do a mission that is all things to all people ends up with a mission that does not meet any objectives. I have to agree the best way forward is to get back on the hourse with a simple mission with a few sensors and do one thing well.

  • Michael Turner

    It seems that, for “political reasons” (?), they cooperated with China in a way that didn’t even pay for itself. Perhaps they chose the wrong East Asian partner. Japan has experience with doing asteroid sample return on a shoestring, and has (quietly) been doing some pretty amazing things with teleoperated robotic arms in orbit for over a decade (including one unsung mission where they assembled and disassembled a snap-together parabolic antenna dozens of times, from ground control.) Perhaps the Russians would be better off planning an unmanned mission with Japan to rescue Phobos-Grunt and repurpose as some kind of asteroid-Grunt sample return. That would be a lot better than seeing one of the most interesting interplanetary missions of recent years end up as nothing but a dismal failure.

  • Marcus Zottl

    It looks like ESA was able to receive a signal from Phobos-Grunt!
    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Operations/SEM4NEZW5VG_0.html