Mars-Bound Russian Probe Trapped in Earth Orbit


A promotional image of the Phobos-Grunt probe (Credits: Roscosmos).

The Phobos-Grunt probe (launched November 8th) has been stranded in Earth orbit since a failure of the on-board boosters prevented it from performing the burns that had been planned to occur while the probe was out of range of the tracking ground stations.

Dwayne Day, a space policy analyst at the National Research Council, commented that: “It’s apparent that this is a very complex mission. They shot for the sky with this one. So far it’s kind of shocking that it ran into problems this early.” An unnamed source and the Russian space agency said that “The risk of failure because of its abnormal operation was very high. Unfortunately, the worst forecasts have come true.”

Although it has been reported that the probe could safely remain in its current orbit for up to a month, estimates indicate that its altitude will become too low to escape to Mars in as little as two days. According to Lev Zeleny, the director of the Moscow-based Space Research Institute (IKI), Russian engineers have “few days for reprogramming before the end of the Mars accessibility window for 2011.”

There is growing concern that should the probe reenter the atmosphere, it may not completely disintegrate, and may land at a yet-unknown location. Of particular concern is the toxic hydrazine fuel, which comprises roughly two-thirds of the probe’s 15-ton mass. Also carried on the probe is a small amount of radioactive cobalt, although this presents much less danger, according to an unnamed official at the Kazakhstan launch facility.

While previously only a single ground station in Baikonur had been able to track the satellite and communicate data for corrective maneuvers, Zeleny has confirmed that US military satellites have assisted in providing accurate tracking of the satellite. As of 6:20 Moscow time, Russian controllers have been able to download data from the probe and are preparing corrective actions.

The profile for the Earth-orbit segment of the Phobos-Grunt mission (Credits: Roscosmos).

The malfunction of the Mars-bound probe, which many had hoped would help restore faith in the Russian planetary exploration program after a 15-year hiatus from Martian missions, represents the 18th unsuccessful attempt by the Russian space program to conduct an exploration mission of the planet. However, difficulties have historically plagued many missions, underlining how difficult it remains to reach and study Mars. Many factors have been identified as to potential sources of the problems on the Phobos-Grunt probe, including economic difficulties, the loss of experience during the 15-year gap in interplanetary missions, and the technical hurdles of the mission.

The video below includes a report from BBC news on the malfuction of the probe.



About the author

Joel Spark


Joel Spark is a Canadian space enthusiast currently working towards an MSc in Space Management at the International Space University near Strasbourg, France. He is driven by a passion for space systems engineering, particularly in applications involving the improvement of living conditions on Earth. He holds Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, with a specialty in structures, systems, and vehicle design.