Phobos-Grunt’s failure

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It seems Russia just can’t catch a break, at least as far as Mars is concerned. Its latest venture to the Red Planet, the Phobos-Grunt probe, has stalled out in Earth orbit almost certainly dead, and it’ll probably crash back to our planet.

The ambitious Russian probe Phobos-Grunt got stuck in Earth orbit and will probably end up crashing back down, adding to a string of Mars-related failures. // Illustration courtesy Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos)
When it launched November 8, the mission was supposed to be Russia’s return to form. The ambitious schedule had Phobos-Grunt (literally “Phobos-Soil” in Russian) enter Mars orbit in 2012, land on the martian moon Phobos in 2013, and return a soil sample to Earth in 2014. Even the firing of its boosters was to be a fine event, with amateur astronomers in the Western Hemisphere asked to record their observations.

Unfortunately for Russia (as well as China and the Planetary Society, which both had scientific cargo aboard Phobos-Grunt), the probe’s boosters didn’t fire after launch, for still unknown reasons. It’s now too late for the mission ever to reach Mars, and the hardware itself will likely return to Earth in the coming months. Such a crash landing would be unusually dangerous, partly because of its unpredictability and partly because of the toxic fuel still aboard.

Space enthusiasts and scientists are not only disappointed, but some interested parties are, apparently, pretty angry. “We need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said this weekend, according to Reuters. He’s considering criminal punishment, but reassuringly suggested stopping short of putting anyone “up against the wall.”

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how difficult these missions are, and sometimes NASA and the European Space Agency (and others) make it look easy. Phobos-Grunt may be one more casualty of the rigors of space travel, but with any luck, it’ll be one of the last.

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