With failures piling up, Roscosmos looking to retry Phobos-Grunt mission
The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos ) has not always had the best of luck lately in launching things into orbit, let alone to points beyond. However, with the recently announced plans to send another spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos, the agency appears poised to make a second attempt – at a very difficult target. Roscosmos’ plans were unveiled via a budget proposal that details the agency’s funding over the course of the next decade (2016-2025 ). In that proposal was a push to reignite the failed 2011 Mars-Grunt (Soil) mission.
Launched on Oct. 17, 2011, atop a Zenit-2SB41 booster from the Baikonur, Cosmodrome, the Phobos-Grunt (translated, it literally means “Phobos-Ground”) mission escaped Earth’s atmosphere. After about two-and-a-half hours, the autonomous main propulsion unit (MDU), which came from a modified Fregat upper stage, appeared to have had encountered a malfunction.
After an extensive period of trying to get the mission under way, it was obvious that the spacecraft was not salvageable. Rather than obtain samples from a far-flung world, Fobos-Grunt and its highly-toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel burned up in Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry, on Jan. 15, 2012.
According to the Tass report via Russia’s Defense Ministry, the original Phobos-Grunt probe’s fragments that did not burn up in the atmosphere had fallen into the Pacific Ocean 1,250 km (777 miles) west of Wellington Island (Chile). For one long-time follower of Russia’s space exploration efforts, this was not just a Russian failure.
“A Phobos sample return is a critical step in preparation for on-site resource utilization for future human missions, so it’s depressing how far the impressive Russian ambitions have been frustrated and delayed – we all are losers,” James Oberg, a noted space journalist and historian told SpaceFlight Insider. “Russia hasn’t had a successful lunar or planetary mission in more than a quarter century, and for them, Phobos remains ‘a bridge too far’ where high ambitions have forestalled a more modest but more plausible renewed deep space science strategy.”
Oberg went on to note that with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or “JAXA”, now working on its second asteroid retrieval mission (Hayabusa 2 ), it is possible that Russia will again be surpassed as it was during the race to the Moon by the United States.
As with the failed 2011 mission, this new spacecraft will seek to obtain a soil sample from one of Mars’ two natural satellites, Phobos (Mars’ other moon is called “Deimos”). If successful, this sample would then be returned to Earth.
If Russia can achieve this feat, it will mark the first time that the nation has been able to carry out a confirmed, successful landing on either Mars or one of the planet’s moons.
Roscosmos has been provided with an estimated 10.3 billion rubles ($198 million), according to a report appearing on Tass, the Russian News Agency, which is more than twice the amount listed under the draft of the funding proposal for the federal space program prepared that was submitted last year. If everything goes according to plan, the second Phobos-Grunt mission should get underway in 2024.
Other Russian space efforts have not fared too well in the recent past. Besides the loss of Phobos-Grunt, the Russian Space Agency has also lost two Progress resupply spacecraft prior to their intended goal of ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. On top of that, no fewer than six Proton launches have encountered either partial or total failures since 2010, with two Soyuz-2 rockets having encountered similar fates along with three Soyuz-U launch vehicles – either only partially achieving their goals or encountering total failure as well.
Within that same time frame, only three U.S. launch vehicles have encountered either partial or total failures. The most prominent being the loss of the Antares booster in October of last year due to the failure of an Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 rocket engine. Then there was the engine-out anomaly encountered by a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.0 booster in October of 2012 (however, due to the F9’s design, the primary objective of sending a Dragon resupply vessel to the space station was completed, with only the loss of the secondary payload marring the rocket’s perfect track record). Finally, there was the loss of NASA’s Glory mission in 2011 due to the Taurus XL 3110’s fairing failing to open.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.