Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission still in the air, figuratively speaking

Reader Walt Staples likes to send me articles he gets on his phone.  Got to LOVE having well-read friends!  Anyway, when he sent this one about Russia sending a probe to Phobos, I decided to write on it, especially since I discovered Sunday night that I actually have people in Russia reading this blog.  (Also Croatia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Canada, the UK, Germany, France and Italy.  So...приветствовать, dobrodošli, Welkom, Welcome, begrüßen, accueillir, and Benvenuto, and I hope those are all correct because I'm using an online translator.)

Big Dreams:  A Zenit rocket with Phobos-Grunt awaits its historic liftoff shortly after its rollout to the launch pad Sunday. photo from
Well, I promised an update on the Russian Phobos-Grunt Mars probe.  Looks like it might be a few weeks before the final verdict is in, so here's the scoop so far.

Russia has had a real love-hate relationship with Mars.  It seems to be mostly hate on Mars part, and frankly, the way it "eats" Russian missions, I'd have to wonder about any love on Russia's part.  All of the probes Russia has sent to Mars have failed, from blowing up on the pad to mysteriously disappearing miles form the Red Planet's surface. 
Here's a list of interplanetary flights from all (?) countries up to 2007, which I found on the Russian Space Web.

Then, well, the end of the Soviet Union put a bit of a kink in any deep space plans.  Whent eh Societ Union fell apart politically and economically, it split the Soviet Space industry infrastructure (which, according to this 1995 analysis by James Olberg) was never all that together anyway.  (Launch facilities are in Kazakistan, which was very nice when it was part of the USSR.)  Financially, the nation(s) have been on thin ice for a long time.  Governments had to well, FORM, then negotiate their cooperation with Russia, and much as we love deep space, I think they've had other priorities.  Ironically, Russian Space Web also blames "brain drain" and a downsizing of the nation's scientific institutions. 

Granted, that was 20 years ago.  (The USSR fell apart in 1991.)  But think of how technology has changed in that time.  Perhaps this is what they meant by "brain drain"?  At any rate, it has posed challenges:

"This is really a very difficult project, if not the most difficult interplanetary one to date," lead scientist Alexander Zakharov said from behind a mess of papers and a brain-sized model of pockmarked Phobos at Moscow's Space Research Institute.

"We haven't had a successful interplanetary expedition for over 15 years. In that time, the people, the technology, everything has changed. It's all new for us, in many ways we are working from scratch," he said.
Quotes from back in the 'Space Race' with Mars Moon Lander.

This is a big mission for Russia, but the Mars "curse" struck again.  Phobos-Grunt (Grunt means "earth, btw) launched successfully and made it into transfer orbit, but the main engines didn't fire to send it on its way to Mars.

from Russian Space Web's page on the  Phobos-Grunt mission
They are hoping the problem is one of software, but even that poses problems.  According to the Russian Space Web, the ground control and tracking antennas are not up to the task of talking to the satellite when it's in such a low, fast orbit.  (I'm not sure why they can't ask other tracking stations to send the commands for them.  There's also apparently some problems with the right people getting the information they need to point the antennas in the correct direction, if you can believe that.
Bozhe moi! Just give me coordinates!
Anyway, they haven't given up hope yet.  MSNBC said Monday evening:

"We estimate that the Phobos-Grunt will fly until January, and to make it perform its mission we still have time until the beginning of December," Ria Novosti quoted Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russia's Federal Space Agency (known as Roscosmos), as saying.

If the launch and landing go well, the Phobos-Grunt mission will do a few things:
  • Carry China's first interplanetary spacecraft, the Yinghou-1 which will orbit Mars to study its atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field, as well as the surface of the Red Planet.
  • Carry vials of bacteria suited for extreme environments to see how they react to space.  This is the first years-long study of microbes in space, according to Reuters.
  • Collect soil samples from Phobos to study here on Earth.

Dust from Phobos, they say, will hold clues to the genesis of the solar system's planets and help clarify Mars' enduring mysteries, including whether it is or ever was suited for life, according to the TVNZ article.
Now I must admit, I'm not sure how that works.  Perhaps they are looking for signs of water or something that would support organic life?  But I wonder--did the dust from the moon give indications of what life on Earth would be like--or that Earth would have life at all?  If not, then why would Phobos be different? A quick Google search revealed nothing to explain this thought.  Any ideas?

Anyway, I'm rooting for them--and they did have one victory this week.  The Soyuz craft with the next ISS crew successfully launched from Kazakistan last night.  Good luck and Godspeed!

Check out the video to see who came with them.

BTW, I'm asking Walt to join me in posting on this blog.  I can't keep up with his e-mails!

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Walt said...

You're just not holding your mouth right.

Seriously, maybe the Mars life thing was just thrown in to make the mission "sexier" for the purpose of wringing funds out of the State Duma and the Federation Council (a tactic that probably originated in Uruk).

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