Russia Mars probe failure underlined by successful U.S. launch
As the NASA rover Curiosity, launched from Cape Canaveral, streaks toward Mars, Russia's Phobos-Ground probe is marooned in near-Earth orbit and largely unresponsive to ground controllers' commands.
By Sergei L. Loiko, reporting from Moscow
Los Angeles Times
November 29, 2011,
Russia's space program has a bad case of the Red Planet blues.
As the NASA rover Curiosity, launched Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., streaks toward Mars, Russia's Phobos-Ground probe is marooned in near-Earth orbit and largely unresponsive to commands from ground controllers.
Russian officials acknowledge that the narrow ballistic window for the spacecraft to reach Mars has closed, making it another in a series of failures for the country's space research. Since the retirement of the last space shuttle in July, U.S. astronauts heading to the International Space Station need to hitch a ride with the Russians, but officials say Russia's space program is suffering from worn-out equipment, a graying workforce and inability to attract a new generation of young specialists.
The $167-million probe, launched Nov. 9, was intended as a major step back into exploration of the deeper cosmos by Russia's proud space program. It was to land on the Martian moon Phobos next year, pick up samples of dust and deliver them back to Earth.
After the probe separated from its main booster rocket, however, its engines failed to fire properly to set it on a path toward Mars, and it didn't respond to signals from ground control.
Russian specialists tried to establish contact with the probe and reprogram its engines. Finally on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24, a European Space Agency communication center in Perth, Australia, made contact three times with the lost craft, establishing its whereabouts but gaining little more information.
"We got a signal and we know the object is out there, technically within reach, but we haven't gotten any helpful information from it," Alexander Zakharov, deputy chief of the Phobos-Ground project at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research, said Monday.
"The apparatus is all but dead and it is a big, big tragedy and a huge blow to our entire distant space research program," he said. "But it is also a big setback that it is dying out there silently without telling us what is the matter with it."
After the window to redirect the spacecraft toward Mars closed early last week, the Russian Space Agency, or Roskosmos, publicly acknowledged that the project had failed.
"We need to be realistic … there are practically no chances to carry out this mission now," said Vitaly Danilov, the agency's deputy chief.
Both the U.S. and Russian missions were delayed from their planned original launches in 2009 until a new opportunity to reach Mars occurred this month. In contrast to Phobos-Ground, the U.S. launch went off flawlessly early Saturday after a one-day delay to replace a battery, sending the Curiosity rover on an eight-month flight to Mars. more
Then there is this from Pravda. And before you ask, your guess is as good as mine.
USA intentionally killed Russia's Phobos-Ground?
The failure with the launch of Phobos-Ground (also spelled Phobos-Grunt) space probe, especially against the background of the successful launch of the US Martian mission, gave rise to a wave of rumors and versions. Even if the fact of foreign interference is determined, no one will ever hear the official confirmation to that. Such a conclusion will not meet the interests of either the United States or Russia.
Russia is forced to resort to competitors to be able to conduct its own space program. Exploring space would be impossible for Russia otherwise. Pravda.Ru interviewed Vyacheslav Serbin, who used to serve at the space troops of the Soviet Union, in an attempt to find out what exactly happened with the Russian space probe.
"Did you serve in the department that was in charge of launching and supervising space probes?"
"Yes, I served as a duty officer of the ground telemetry station in Simferopol. We would establish connection with spacecraft as soon as they appeared on their trajectory. We would then measure its orbit and hand over the information to other stations. There were ten ground telemetry stations operating in the Soviet Union. However, that was not enough to control spacecraft only from the territory of our country. As soon as the craft flies beyond the horizon, we lose communication with it. To expand the zone of control, there were mobile ground telemetry stations built on board many vessels that could travel all over the world. That was called the "expeditionary department of the Academy of Sciences," although it was actually a military installation.
"The group was established in the beginning of the 1960s, when the USSR approved the lunar exploration program. The USSR was going to launch manned spacecraft to the Moon. It turned out, though, that the country did not have enough area to maintain constant contact with cosmonauts. Staying in touch with them was mandatory. The above-mentioned group of vessels was built exactly for that purpose. It just so happened that the USSR could control its spacecraft all over the world, like the Americans do today.
"Three flagships - Cosmonaut Komarov, Sergei Korolev and Yury Gagarin - were operating as command posts. They were giving commands for acceleration. That was the most important part of the process, because the acceleration impulse was given at the side which remained invisible for the station where I was serving. The vessels would be stationed at the locations from where commands would be given and that was it - solved. Several other smaller vessels would collect telemetry from the spacecraft.
"All of those vessels were decommissioned after the collapse of the USSR. Russia does not have anything like that today. That's why we have this situation with Phobos-Ground. Plus, we have lost two large command posts in the Crimea (Ukraine). The command post in Simferopol today is bankrupt. The Ukrainians could have used it, as the Kazakhs do now with Baikonur space port. Instead, the Ukrainians simply destroyed it. The ground telemetry station in the Ukrainian town of Alushta now belongs to Americans. Therefore, Russia does not have the control system in the area of the Black Sea.
"One of the versions explaining the failed launch of Phobos-Ground said that it could happen because of the powerful US radar in Alaska. Can this be possible at all?"
"I doubt about the radar. Some sort of very strong interference could be the reason, though. It could be both incidental and intentional. Why could this be intentional? The US mission to Mars was launched very soon after Russia's Phobos-Ground. The US spacecraft virtually followed the Russian probe - it flew in the same direction. It just so happens that the Russians and the Americans had to control their spacecraft at one and the same time. It could be possible that such efforts could create interference, especially during the time when the probes were only flying into space, when the signal is very powerful. The signals from Phobos-Ground and from the US Martian probe would collide with each other."
"Why were the probes launched almost simultaneously then?"
"Because it is a matter of the so-called launch window. It means that one has to launch a space vehicle during a certain moment. This moment would be most favorable from the point of view of energy efficiency, when the efforts required to take a spacecraft to orbit of Mars are minimal. It is possible to conduct the launch later, of course, but that would require more efforts - more fuel, stronger booster rockets and so on. If the launch is conducted during the so-called launch time constraints, it is possible to use the accelerating impulse of the Earth, when the Earth gives extra acceleration to the spacecraft. The lunar gravity and the gravity of stars is also important. All those details are meticulously calculated before launch to save as much energy as possible."
"If there was external interference indeed, when could it happen?"
"It could happen at the moment when the Russian probe was staying at the side of the Earth, which Russia was unable to control. Technically, they could send the impulse, which would disrupt the work of the probe. It is possible to send the command not to activate the engine. It is also possible to send a strong electromagnetic impulse to shut down the engine. If Russia had the system of floating telemetry stations, we would be able to control the situation.
"Is this the reason why Russia had to ask the European Space Agency for help?"
"Of course. If we had the control system, we would know what was going on on board the probe. Instead, we had to ask Europe for help and expose our secret commands to them. How could Australia find the Russian probe? They had to know the frequencies and the commands to be able to do that. That is top secret information."
"Did such situations occur in the past, when the USSR and the USA would throw sand in each other's wheels?"
"Yes, there were such situations in the past. I'd say that in 1969, the Soviet Union lost quite a number of outer space probes. Investigation revealed some strange things happening there. A similar strange situation took place on board the Apollo 13 in 1970. An oxygen tank blew up and two or three fuel batteries came out of order. Everything went back to normal for the Soviet Union after that.
"No one would ever advertise such things because they contradict to the interests of both sides. It goes about both political and military interests. This is the point of intelligence services - to make competitors suffer certain losses." Pravda.Ru