On Thursday, November 10, mission control tried unsuccessfully to communicate with the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos Ground) probe which lifted off November 8.
Analysts are in no mood to exaggerate the situation with the spacecraft but note that its problems are more serious than an ordinary technical mishap. Russia’s long range space program will now depend on Federal Space Agency efforts to reach the proper conclusions regarding the Phobos-Grunt incident.
The patient is more dead than alive
The Federal Space Agency has been trying to restore control of the Phobos-Grunt probe and to obtain coherent telemetry data for the past two days. This is needed in order to understand the developments aboard the probe when it could not be tracked by radar, when its sustainer engine was to have switched on, and when it was supposed to enter an escape orbit. But none of this happened.
By November 10, officials made some statements implying that the results of the communications sessions were not yet known. These statements gradually became more pessimistic, indicating that no communication had actually been established with the spacecraft, and that no telemetry data was available. It appears that an attempt to communicate with the probe from the Guiana Space Center near Kourou in French Guiana has also failed, and that no telemetry data has been received.
“In my opinion, the Phobos-Grunt probe has been lost. This probability is very high. At any rate, it is much higher than the chances for reactivating the probe,” Major General Vladimir Uvarov, a former top space expert in the Russian Armed Forces, told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper.
Loss of communications means loss of control
It would be a mistake to explain the Phobos-Grunt fiasco by a mere equipment failure. The problem runs much deeper. This failure is the result of negative trends in the management of the space program, which have been developing over the past 20 years, and, it seems, are not directly linked with specific issues of technical reliability.
“What do we have? The probe has entered a parking orbit, but no communications have been established. The probe circles the Earth at a rate of 16 revolutions per day, but there has been only one communication session during that entire time,” independent analyst Vadim Lukashevich, creator of the Buran.Ru portal, told RIA Novosti.
If Russia wants to conduct comprehensive long-range space missions, then it must first deploy at least two or three tracking/data-relay satellites in geostationary orbits, Lukashevich said. The previous Mars probe fiasco in 1996 can be explained by the fact that the ground radar stations were unable to track it.
Lukashevich also deems it necessary to reinstate a fleet of space control-monitoring ships for tracking these launches. “China has three or four ship-borne tracking stations, while Russia has none,” Lukashevich noted.
Clench your teeth and go on
It is unclear whether the Phobos-Grunt mission will be reactivated or not, but Russia’s unmanned space program has been dealt a serious blow. Against the backdrop of the first emotional reaction, analysts note that it would be wiser to postpone ambitious interplanetary projects and focus on simpler near-Earth objectives.
“We cannot compromise our ideals, and we must get rid of this defeatist attitude. We face a very serious problem: we have spent five billion rubles to develop a spacecraft, more or less. A new, Russian, engineering school has evolved during the project, although its mistakes are evident here,” said Vadim Lukashevich, who disagrees with the pessimists.
In Lukashevich’s estimation, R&D spending accounts for the bulk of the Phobos-Grunt allocations. The spacecraft itself costs just over a billion rubles. The main R&D projects have already taken place. Consequently, a second such probe will cost less to build under conditions of strict disbursement oversight.
This would make it possible to prioritize equipment tests on the ground. “To be honest, we need to repeat the very same mission and its objectives, with due consideration for the exposed drawbacks,” Lukashevich believes.
Equipment failure raises new questions
Russian-made space equipment is less reliable than Western equipment because the electronics are less stable due to weaker componentry and lower radiation resistance.
After scoring successes on the Moon and Venus, Soviet probes suffered repeated setbacks during the longer flights to Mars. U.S. Mars probes were more successful, although they too were not without problems.
In this particular case, we are not dealing with equipment degradation in conditions of a long-duration mission. Therefore, this either implies substandard software and algorithms or equipment failure.
Analysts say this may have been caused by insufficient testing, including a decision not to test-launch the probe’s full-size mock-up.
“What prevented orbital tests of this control-and-guidance system and propulsion unit a year ago?” Vadim Lukashevich asks.
He recalled that the Federal Space Agency missed a 2009 launch window after the Russian Academy of Sciences said the probe was not ready for lift-off. The resulting two-year lull in the project could have been used to upgrade launch technology.
Considering the fact that new systems developed under the Phobos-Grunt project account for 90% of the probe’s systems (as mentioned by the Federal Space Agency’s Chief Vladimir Popovkin at a recent State Duma meeting), it is important that the probe’s mock-up be used to test launch sequences prior to the installation of expensive scientific equipment onboard.
“They should buy another Zenit launch vehicle, fit it with rocket-accelerator components, including the engine, the fuel system and star trackers, and follow through with a launch. If everything is OK, then the next launch would involve the instrument-packed module. But this was not done,” Lukashevich notes.
Phobos highlights the problems of long-range space research
Vladimir Popovkin has prioritized unmanned long-range scientific missions, even sidetracking the stated intention to boost commercial profits. However, Russian research programs are too meager. Consequently, it is impossible to view the impending failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission as a minor setback.
After the ’96 Mars disaster, this is Russia’s first attempt in 15 years to launch a research probe beyond near-Earth space. And this is bound to be the last attempt for a long time. The launch of the Luna-Glob (Lunar Sphere) probe was rescheduled for 2015 the other day. It appears that the 2015 launch deadline will inevitably be reset for a later date.
Actually, Phobos-Grunt is part of Russia’s long-range space program as directed by the head of the Federal Space Agency. Another Phobos-Grunt mission will become the cheapest and most effective way of supporting this aspect of the research, if a miracle does not happen in the next few hours or days, and if control over the probe, now flying in a parking orbit, is not reestablished.
The specific drawbacks of the Phobos-Grunt probe could be exposed and eliminated during a repeat launch. But the mission will not be confined to this. The entire national space program, which, in its current form, provokes isolated technical mishaps, is in for a major reorganization.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.