Phobos-Grunt Sleeps With the Fishes

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

The derelict Phobos-Grunt spacecraft has returned to Earth in a crash more spectacular than Tim Tebow’s flame-out in New England last night. Preliminary reports have the spacecraft re-entering in the South Pacific off the coast of Chile. However, the Twitterosphere is abuzz with alternate reports of it coming down over Brazil. A definite answer is due within the next day. There have been no reports of injuries.

And so ends the first Russian planetary mission in 15 years. After reaching orbit, the spacecraft’s engine never fired to send it off the Mars. Efforts by Roscosmos and ESA to communicate with the stricken space probe and command it to fire the engine failed.

The spacecraft was designed to return soil samples from the martian moon Phobos, drop off a small Chinese sub-satellite, and study Mars in depth. It was also supposed to return a Planetary Society experiment that contained microscopic life to determine how organisms survive the space environment.

There has never been a fully successful Russian or Soviet mission to the Red Planet. This latest failure actually extends the Russian-Soviet record of frustration in planetary exploration to 27 years. The last successful effort was in December 1984 when Vega 1 and 2 dropped off experiments at Venus and then flew on to Halley’s Comet.  Since then, there have been three failed attempts at exploring Phobos.

Despite Russia’s dismal record, NASA and ESA have invited the nation to become a full partner in future Mars exploration because neither space agency has enough funding to pursue its joint programs. Russia would provide a launch vehicle and instruments for exploring Mars.

That invitation was made before Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin hinted darkly that some Western power might have used weaponry to knock out Phobos-Grunt and other Russian spacecraft. He accused no one by name, but the remarks were widely seen as being directed at the United States. These claims have been widely ridiculed and denied by the U.S. State Department, which has said it is eager to see any evidence to back up Popovkin’s claim.

Russian scientists who planned the Phobos-Grunt mission say they are eager to fly another spacecraft there. It is not clear what Roscosmos will do in the future.