UPDATE: Phobos-Grunt Phones Home — What's Next for the Stranded Spacecraft?

UPDATE: Phobos-Grunt Phones Home — What's Next for the Stranded Spacecraft?

UPDATE:   ESA reports today (Thursday, Nov. 24) that it was successful in communicating with Phobos-Grunt on the first of five passes late yesterday (EST), but was not successful during the subsequent four passes.  It had not expected communications during the second pass, but apparently had expected to hear from the stranded spacecraft on the later attempts.   ESA said that the later attempts used a different antenna on the spacecraft and Russian experts are troubleshooting the situation to ascertain whether that antenna is the problem.  The ESA statement said another five opportunities are available during the night of November 24-25, but it did not indicate which time zone that refers to (GMT, Central European Standard Time, Moscow Time, or the time in Perth, Australia where ESA’s tracking station is located.)

ORIGINAL STORY:  It is far too early to pop champagne corks, but the establishment of initial communications with the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft certainly is good news that raises the question of what’s next for the stranded spacecraft.

Russia’s RIA Novosti confirmed reports on Twitter by RussianSpaceWeb.com and others that the European Space Agency (ESA) was able to obtain telemetry from the spacecraft today (Eastern Standard Time).   An ESA ground station in Perth, Australia, picked up a carrier signal from the spacecraft yesterday.  Today’s brief communications section obtained telemetry that is being analyzed by Russian experts at NPO Lavochkin, which manufactured the spacecraft.

Phobos-Grunt  (Phobos-soil) was stranded in a very low Earth orbit after its Fregat upper stage failed to place it on a trajectory to Mars following an otherwise successful launch on November 8.  A signal was received that the solar panels deployed, but the spacecraft went silent thereafter.   Attempts to raise the spacecraft were futile until ESA received the carrier signal yesterday.  In its low orbit, communicating with it is possible only for brief periods (6-10 minutes) each time it passes over specially equipped ground stations.  The ESA ground station in Perth was modifiedto raise the chances of establishing communication.

RussianSpaceWeb.com quotes a Russian space news website, Novosti Kosmonavtiki, as stating that the telemetry indicated the power supply and communications equipment were normal; more details await analysis by Lavochkin.

If Russian experts are able to determine what went wrong with the Fregat upper stage and remedy the problem, the question is what to do with the spacecraft.  It was designed to obtain a sample of Mars’s moon Phobos and return it to Earth.   Officials report that the window for a two-way trip to Mars closed on Monday, but a one-way trip to Mars could still be possible.  Phobos-Grunt carries a small Chinese Mars orbiter that could be deployed even if the primary mission had to be abandoned.  The one-way launch window to Mars remains open for several more weeks.   NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is scheduled for launch on Saturday, for example; its launch window is open until mid-December.  Earth and Mars are properly aligned in their orbits every 26 months for trips between the two planets.

Suggestions have been made that the spacecraft could be used for lunar research instead.   RIA Novosti quotes the deputy head of Russia’s Institute for Space Research as suggesting that Phobos-Grunt could be sent to an asteroid rather than the Moon, since Phobos is similar to an asteroid and the scientific equipment would be better suited for such a mission.

All of that assumes that the spacecraft can be “reanimated” in RIA Novosti’s terminology.  Whether or not that is in the cards will not be known until Lavochkin analyzes the telemetry, but at the very least engineers may be able to determine what went wrong.  Russia’s attempts to send its own probes to Mars have been plagued with failure since the 1960s although it successfully launched ESA’s Mars Express in 2003.

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.