It’s Dead, Jim! Roscosmos Begins Investigation of Phobos-Grunt Failure, Preps for Reentry

Phobos-Grunt in orbit around the Earth. (Credit: Ralph Vandeberg -- used by permission)

It is said that success has 100 fathers and that failure is an orphan. And so it is with Phobos-Grunt, whose failure has elicited weeks of silence from the Russian space agency Roscomos. As a desperate effort was made to contact and save the Mars mission, the world had to rely on updates from the European Space Agency.

That silence was finally broken last week. On Thursday, there was a widely distributed “Dear Colleagues” letter from Lev Zelenyi, director of the Space Research Institute (IKI), the organization that oversaw the development of Phobos-Grunt. The letter declared  Phobos-Grunt to be a failure and thanked those who tried to save it.

On Saturday, Roscosmos announced the establishment of a commission to investigate the failure and a Defense Ministry task force to prepare for the uncontrolled re-entry of the satellite, which contains 7.5 tons of toxic fuel. The investigative commission with be headed by Yuri Koptev, who is chairman of the Scientific and Technical Council of State Corporation Russian Technologies.  He formally headed up the Russian space agency when it was named Rosaviakosmos.

Zelenyi’s letter is reproduced after the break.

December 8, 2011

Dear Colleagues,

As you may already know, the launch of the Phobos-Soil spacecraft was a failure. On November 8, 2011 the spacecraft was put into the near Earth orbit, however, the booster did not turn on, and, therefore, the spacecraft did not manage to change this initial orbit and transfer to the interplanetary trajectory. The reason of this failure has not been determined yet.

Immediately after this unpredictable event all forces of the mission control team were concentrated in order to attempt to establish communication with the spacecraft. Several foreign organizations, in particular, ESOC-ESA, DSN-JPL-NASA, NORAD-STRATCOM, numerous amateur observers tracked the spacecraft to establish communication with it and determine parameters of the orbit, its orientation and attitude. However, despite people being at work 24 / 7 since the launch, all these attempts have not yield any satisfactory results. We are grateful to our foreign colleagues, who provided us with every list of information about the spacecraft which was crucial at the time.

Currently, the spacecraft is rotating [tumbling] at the near Earth orbit, lowering every day, and we expect that it is to entry the atmosphere in several weeks. Lavochkin Association specialists will continue their attempts to establish connection with the spacecraft and send commands until the very end of its existence. We are working nevertheless on the issue of re-entry and probability of where and which fragments may hit the ground (if any). There is a sensitive matter that one of the scientific instruments (Messbauer spectrometer) contains radioactive material Co-57. However, the amount of Co-57 is about few (less than 10) micrograms, so that, according to our evaluations, no significant problems are is anticipated.

At present, the next steps of the Russian space science program on the Solar system exploration are being discussed. In accordance with the current plans, the next missions are Luna-Glob and Luna-Resource. As another possible additional step, at the moment ROSCOSMOS, ESA and NASA are discussing the collaboration on the ExoMars and Russian Mars-NET missions. Moreover, the Russian Academy of Sciences would like to prepare a new mission to Phobos. However, no decision has not been taken yet.

We would like to express our deep gratitude to You and all the scientists and specialists for collaboration on the Phobos-Soil Mission, preparation of scientific instruments and provision of ground support. We are deeply sorry about the failure of the Phobos-Soil Mission. We hope in future to continue our collaboration on space science projects.

Academician Lev Zelenyi
Director, Space Research Institute
Chair, Solar system exploration Board
The Russian Academy of Sciences