On Saturday, Roscosmos and the Russian defense department announced a task force to study the probe’s reentry.
The creation of the task force “confirmed that the agency had exhausted all hopes for establishing control over the mission,” said Anatoly Zak, a Russian space journalist and historian who operates the news site RussianSpaceWeb.com. Reentry of the spacecraft now appears “inevitable,” he said.
The European Space Agency (ESA) briefly established contact with Phobos-Grunt from a tracking station in the Canary Islands, raising hopes the mission might be salvaged. But further attempts largely failed. After two additional attempts Friday, ESA formally called off the campaign.
A top Russian space scientist sent an open letter on Thursday to colleagues worldwide apologizing for the failure.
“Despite people being at work 24/7 since the launch, all these attempts have not yield[ed] any satisfactory results,” wrote Lev Zelenyi, director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow. The institute, which planned the long-anticipated mission, is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Zelenyi added, “We are working nevertheless on the issue of re-entry and [the] probability of where and which fragments may hit the ground (if any).”
The probe carries a few micrograms of radioactive cobalt-57 to power one of the spacecraft’s instruments, but Zelenyi wrote that this tiny amount of material did not pose a danger.
In the works for two decades, the $165 million mission was designed to vault Russia into the elite ranks of planetary explorers after a 15-year fallow period.
“Getting back into interplanetary exploration has been a real passion, a real obsession for them,” said former NASA engineer James Oberg, now an independent space analyst. “It’s been 25 years since they’ve had an interplanetary mission succeed.”
Phobos-Grunt lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 9. After the launch placed the probe in low-Earth orbit, a booster rocket failed to ignite. Attempts to diagnose and fix the problem were largely fruitless.
Frantic last-minute repairs to the probe’s electrical system may have contributed to the failure, Zak said, citing sources at NPO Lavochkin, the Russian company that built Phobos-Grunt.
“There was a serious cable connection problem discovered in Baikonur” just weeks before launch, Zak said. “They had to disconnect the cables, and these were hard connections. They had to cut them and wire them to a different route.” He said engineers re-soldered electrical connections even though the craft was fueled with highly flammable hydrazine.
The mission was designed to achieve something never before attempted: a landing on Phobos, one of Mars’s two moons. There, the probe was to scoop up some soil and return it to Earth for study. Phobos-Grunt also carried a small Chinese probe designed to orbit Mars.