No News is … No News: Phobos-Grunt Remains Silent as NASA Prepares to Launch Curiosity

No News is … No News: Phobos-Grunt Remains Silent as NASA Prepares to Launch Curiosity

The old saying that no news is good news certainly does not apply in the case of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars mission. Russian experts still have not been able to communicate with the spacecraft, stranded in Earth orbit since Tuesday. Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to launch its next Mars probe, Curiosity, on the day after Thanksgiving.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, is as silent about the situation as the spacecraft itself. Though the Russian language version of its website continues to be updated regarding other Russian space missions, nothing has been posted about Phobos-Grunt. Tomorrow’s scheduled launch of Soyuz TMA-22 to the International Space Station dominates the Roscosmos site. The link to the Phobos-Grunt mission clearly is to material posted prior to the launch. (A note on the English language version of the site has stated for some time that it will not be updated until November 30 for unexplained reasons.)

Russia’s main news agency, Itar-Tass, carried a story yesterday, but it was a summnary of what other Russian media sources were reporting, not its own story.

Today, Ria Novosti reports that continued attempts to communicate with the spacecraft failed again overnight and this morning. That report cites an unnamed source as saying that November 21 is the cutoff date for efforts to resolve whatever problem has beset Phobos-Grunt and send it on its way to Mars. Emily Lakdawalla, blogging for The Planetary Society, which has an experiment on the spacecraft, explains that November 21 is when the launch window to Mars closes. Earth and Mars are correctly aligned to enable launches only every 26 months. Although Russian experts estimate that Phobos-Grunt will reenter Earth’s atmosphere around December 3 if contact cannot be restored, there is less time available in order to send it on its journey.

Meanwhile, NASA is getting ready to launch its next Mars spacecraft on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving. Like Phobos-Grunt, the NASA spacecraft, named Curiosity or the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is a technically risky mission with rich scientific potential. Russia’s history of Mars probes has been jinxed since it began in the 1960s, and although NASA has suffered several high profile failures (Mariner 8, Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander), it also has stunning successes, including the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The new spacecraft, Curiosity, will use a new, challenging landing method — a “sky crane” — that will undoubtedly have scientists and engineers on the edge of their seats next year when the spacecraft reaches its destination.

For the next week or so, however, attention will continue to focus on Russia’s Mars mission, Phobos-Grunt, and whether miracles can still happen.

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