Thursday, November 10, 2011

Controllers desperately trying to reboot Phobos Grunt

Ground controllers appear to be engaged in a desperate last ditch effort to save the Phobos Grunt mission. If multiple reports are correct, the spacecraft has been silent since it's second orbit, when it reported solar panel deployment and nominal operations.

After that Phobos Grunt's main propulsion unit failed to make the two burns required to put the spacecraft on a trajectory toward Mars. The craft was over South America and out of range of Russian tracking stations at the time.

It appears that while the spacecraft has been within range of Russian ground stations that controllers have been sending commands to reboot it's flight computer. Apparently, without success so far.

Communication sessions with Phobos Grunt are limited to brief periods each night while the craft passes over Russia or Kazakhstan. The European Space Agency has offered it's tracking stations in Australia and South America to assist in the effort.

With no official word coming from the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) speculation is rife on the internet as to what really is happening.

Russianspaceweb.com edited by Anatoly Zak, a journalist and expert on Russia's space program is reporting the following:

"In early hours Moscow Time, the editor of this web site received a message from the director of Moscow-based Space Research Institute, IKI, Lev Zeleny, informing that tracking facilities of the US military provided significant help in establishing exact orbital parameters of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. This data was to be used during the previous night to send commands to the spacecraft as it was passing within range of ground control stations. Zeleny reassured that the mission team still had had "few days for reprogramming before the end of the Mars accessibility window for 2011."

Notice that Zeleny did not say the spacecraft had accepted the commands, only that they had been sent.

Zak's article continues:


"In the meantime, a poster on the Novosti Kosmonavtiki forum reported some crucial details on the very initial phase of the mission. As it transpired, immediately after reaching the orbit, telemetry was received from the second stage confirming normal separation of the rocket and the spacecraft. During the second orbit, ground control received the only communication from the spacecraft itself, confirming that solar panels had been deployed, the vehicle acquired correct orientation toward the Sun and all systems had been functioning well. However after the second orbit, the spacecraft was found in orbit transmitting no signals and no telemetry came during the previous night. At a ground station in Baikonur, ground controllers attempted to re-boot Phobos-Grunt's flight control computers, BKU, and were planning to repeat the same attempt during the upcoming night."

So at this point things are looking grim for the Phobos Grunt mission. It appears that there has been no communication with the spacecraft since sometime in it's second orbit and that so far attempts to reboot it's computer have failed. 

Unless flight controllers can pull off a miracle it appears Phobos Grunt is doomed.