Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Russian Phobos Grunt Mars probe set for launch today

Phobos Grunt mission poster
November 9 - 0130 UTC: After a flawless launch provided by it's Zenit booster the Phobos Grunt's main propulsion unit failed to make the two burns required to put the spacecraft on a trajectory toward Mars. If Russian engineers can find and fix the problem withing three days, before the crafts batteries drain, there's a chance they can salvage the mission.


Spaceflight Now"We had a difficult night, and we could not locate the spacecraft for a long time," Popovkin said in a report by the Russian Novosti news agency. "We now have its position. It was found that the propulsion system failed. There was neither the first nor the second burn."

Popovkin said the spacecraft may not have issued the command for a specially-designed rocket system to ignite, adding such an issue was foreseen during the development of the mission. He also suggested there could have been a problem with the craft's orientation and switching from sun-tracking to star-tracking, according to the Novosti report.


Atlanta Journal article: "James Oberg, a NASA veteran who now works as a space consultant, said it's still possible to regain control over the Russia space probe."

"With several days of battery power, and with the probe's orbit slowly twisting out of the optimal alignment with the desired path towards Mars, the race is on to regain control, diagnose the potential computer code flaws, and send up emergency rocket engine control commands," Oberg said in an email to The Associated Press. "Depending on the actual root of the failure, this is not an impossible challenge."

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November 8 - 2026 UTC: A successful Zenit launch carrying the Phobos Grunt spacecraft.  Two burns of the Phobos Grunt's main propulsion unit remain before the vehicle is on course to Mars.
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Russia plans to launch it's bold Phobos Grunt mission to Mars today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Grunt means "soil" in Russian) The missions objective is to land on the Martian moon Phobos, collect soil samples and return them to Earth three years later.

Launch is scheduled for 2016:03 GMT (12:16:03 p.m. PST) today. Phobos Grunt will make it's 9 minute ride to orbit on a two stage Zenit rocket.  Once in Earth orbit the spacecraft's main propulsion unit will make two burns to place it on a course to intersect Mars 11 months later. After arriving at Mars the same propulsion unit, based on the Fregat upper stage, will be used once more to place the craft in mars orbit.


Once in Mars orbit Phobos Grunt will jettison the propulsion unit and deploy China's Yinghuo 1 orbiter, which piggybacked it's ride to there.


The spacecraft is expected to reach the vicinity of Mars in October 2012. Before attempting a Phobos landing several months will be spent investigating Mars and it's moons. 


By early 2013 Phobos Grunt will have approached Phobos and began looking for a landing site. In February 2013 it's expected that the lander will  attempt to land on Phobos. Once on the surface it will collect up to half a pound of samples with it's robotic arm and drill.


Phobos-Grunt's will then launch it's return capsule toward Earth, where it's expected to land in August 2014.  The lander will remain on Phobos continuing it's investigations for up to a year.

Images: RosCos