After a frustrating month, Russian space scientists have apparently abandoned efforts to save a Mars probe stranded in Earth orbit since early November.
Known as Phobos-Grunt, the robotic spacecraft carries some 7.5 tons of fuel and a small amount of radioactive cobalt. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, expects the probe to plunge back to Earth around Jan. 9.
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.
Russia space watchers say the mission was set up for failure.
“This project is overly ambitious, it’s overloaded with stuff, and it’s mismanaged,” Zak said. “The Chinese spacecraft was added at the last minute. That required a complete redesign, it complicated the spacecraft, and made it heavier and much harder to control.”
Louis Friedman, former director of the U.S.-based Planetary Society, which flew a small experiment on Phobos-Grunt, called the spacecraft a “kludge,” with extra instruments added late in the design process.
To push this extra weight all the way to Mars, Russian engineers came up with a fast, cheap solution; they added an extra doughnut-shaped fuel tank.
“Instead of redesigning the whole thing, they did it the Russian way and just strapped on some more tanks,” Oberg said.
But the booster rocket fueled by those tanks never fired.
The failure is an indictment of poor management in Russia’s space program, Friedman recently wrote in the Space Review.
He pointed to Roscosmos maintaining just a single ground station capable of communicating with Phobos-Grunt. When the craft became stranded, the Russians had to call on ESA and NASA.
Russia’s space industry has suffered a huge “brain drain” in recent decades, Zak said. Low wages and the lack of opportunities to design new missions sent many engineers packing for the United States and Europe.
“They have people working who are 70 and people who are 25,” Zak said. “They have this lost generation of space workers.”
Reuters reported that of 250,000 Russian space workers, 90 percent are older than 60 or younger than 30.
Russia’s last attempt to reach the Red Planet, in 1996, ended ignominiously when a booster rocket failed and crashed back to Earth.
The Russians may have another chance at Mars in 2016. That’s when ESA and NASA plan to launch an orbiter to study how Mars lost most of its once-thick atmosphere. Earlier this year, NASA said it could no longer afford the necessary rocket. That leaves an opening for Russia to join.
During a meeting Wednesday in Paris, Roscosmos representatives agreed in principle to provide the launch rocket, said Franco Bonacina, an ESA spokesman.
“Russia will then have a lot of say in the mission,” Zak said. “Without them, now it looks like the mission collapses like a house of cards.”