12:20 GMT +3 hours24 November 2014
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Analysis & Opinion

Mars departure window closing, will open later

Analysis & Opinion
(updated 18:27 28.10.2014)
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The astronomical window for the Phobos-Grunt's mission to Mars has just about closed, believe space industry sources. The probe could still fly by the red planet, but the expedition to land on and then return to Earth from the Martian moon Phobos is a failure.

The astronomical window for the Phobos-Grunt's mission to Mars has just about closed, believe space industry sources. The probe could still fly by the red planet, but the expedition to land on and then return to Earth from the Martian moon Phobos is a failure.

The window is closed, next chance - 2014

Soon the opportunity for the Phobos probe to reach Mars will be lost. For almost two weeks no discernable feedback has been obtained from the spacecraft or for that matter any positive developments in restoring control.

Technically the Phobos probe can be classified as "alive" (since, judging by observations, it stays in its orbit and is oriented toward the Sun) but practically it is lost.

The 2011 launch window for Mars is known to span November and December. Initially, prior to liftoff, November 21 was named as the ultimate date for the Phobos-Grunt's departure to Mars (the firm belief of unnamed sources in the space industry).

But on November 14, Russian Space Agency head, Vladimir Popovkin, officially articulated a different opinion. He said the last chance to save the Phobos-Grunt mission would disappear "early in December," when the window closes.

But the probe continues stoically to ignore signals from Earth (as, incidentally, its designers taught it to do at least during orbit - no outside controls are provided for that). This means the probe is most likely to fly nowhere and its successor (if a state budget overburdened with social commitments and defense purchases manages to cough up another billion rubles) will have the opportunity to repeat the attempt no sooner than early 2014.

Open to some, closed to others

Strictly speaking, the 2011 Mars window is still open. The U.S. probe MSL (Mars Science Laboratory), which is to depart for Mars with the Mars rover Curiosity on board at the end of this week, has a launch window between November 25 and December 18.

The two probes, however, have different flight programs once in Mars' neighborhood (as dictated by the need to approach Phobos by the best route). Also, in planning a usable window, the starting orbit plays a role because it is related to flight trajectory. The Phobos has utilized its window by circling in its reference orbit, while the Americans are just at the beginning of their identified time slot.

At the turn of the century, the Americans seem to have broken the mythical "Martian curse." If anything, the success rate of their missions late in the 1990s and early 2000s (which were the first to deliver rovers to the Red Planet's surface) favorably differed from the traditional "toll" of unmanned Martian probes in former years (both Soviet Mars craft and American Mariners).

In Russia, the Martian programs have not done well so far, or more accurately, they have done pretty badly. The setbacks that have plagued Russia's Martian saga began late in the 1980s with Phobos-1 and Phobos-2 failures, were followed by a launch disaster with the Mars-96 in 1996, and are now manifested by the Phobos-Grunt.

With a total research collapse in the 1990s and personnel degradation in the early 2000s, the performance of Russia's research and development sector is, to be frank, not the best. As recent years now show, a mere injection of money no longer solves the problem of bringing the industry back to health and stabilizing the quality of the work.

The systemic crisis of Russia's space effort is so deep that comprehensive and long-term measures are required to restructure at least the education and management sectors. In this sense, money alone will not open the next window to Mars.

Flying by 2018

In 2018, the Earth will see a great opposition to Mars (when the planets pass each other at minimum distance). These times of great opposition (they occur once every 15 to 17 years) are viewed as the most convenient launch windows for space missions - they cut most of the time a crew is exposed to space radiation during the flight.

The Mars-500 experiment, which was completed recently and which simulated a manned flight to Mars, was conducted with the 2018 launch window in mind. "Blasting off" from the Earth's reference orbit on October 10, 2017, the crew "reached" the Martian orbit on September 29, 2018 and "returned home" on October 10, 2019.

However, the Earth is clearly not prepared to use this window for sending astronauts to Mars - the leading powers will not shoulder such a mission either technologically or financially. Especially since, with current scientific and engineering knowledge, there are great doubts about protecting a crew against cosmic radiation.

However, the next opposition - in 2035 - is seriously regarded by the Americans as a convenient distant target for their space effort. By abandoning an immediate return to the Moon under Obama, a project set as a strategic guideline by George Bush, the U.S. has set its sights even higher.

On the one hand, this kind of mission to Mars is easy to drop: a repeated Moon flight involving new materials and technology is less challenging than a two-year expedition into the solar system.

On the other hand, the distinctive objectives of such a project may call for research and development efforts capable of yielding a mass of new technology. Even if the Martian mission is called off and the 2035 Martian window closes like the previous ones.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.