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A Horrible Loss in 2011, But Not a Surprise (Updated 8/19/2014)

August 19, 2016 Update: Phobos Grunt was first reported to have crashed into the Pacific 775 miles west of Wellington island, but later reports had it breaking up over Brazil. As will be discussed below, both before and after failure of this Russian mission, there has been wild speculation about Phobos which is the larger of the two moons orbiting Mars. But when we checked in 2014 to see what was in the final failure analysis report, we found the following from Louis D. Friedman at the Planetary Society:

       “The Russian space agency (Roscosmos) makes it clear that the fault lies at home -- due to non-space qualified parts being used in some of the electronics circuits. This is a design failure by the spacecraft engineers that might have been caught had they performed adequate component and system testing prior to flight. But they did not. The officially released final report presents three main conclusions (paraphrased here from a cursory and unofficial translation):


(1) Everything was working well with the spacecraft immediately after launch, including deployment of the solar panels, until the command to start the engines was issued. When that did not happen, the spacecraft went into a safe mode, keeping the solar panels pointed to the Sun to maintain power.


(2) The spacecraft computer failed when two of the chips in the electronics suffered radiation damage. (The Russians say that radiation damage is the most likely cause, but the spacecraft was still in low Earth orbit beneath the radiation belts.) Whatever triggered the chip failure, the ultimate cause was the use of non-space-qualified electronic components. When the chips failed, the on-board computer program crashed.


(3) There was inadequate ground-testing of all spacecraft components.


       While we certainly cannot confirm earlier speculation about the U.S. sabotaging Phobos Grunt, in view of the questionable second conclusion above, let's look at the history of this mission mission, and indeed what has been written before about Phobos itself. Any investigation into the cause of the loss of Phobos Grunt should not overlook the possibility of sabotage by agents with a possible motivation of keeping an accurate picture of Mars from public view.    

       On January 10, 2012, a story appeared on FoxNews.Com entitled Russian Space Chief Blames 'Foreign Sabotage' for Recent Space Failures.  We had written about this possibility back in November, 2011 as follows:

       The Russians have long suffered from a horrendous Mars probe record. There have long been rumors, and even odds statements by Russian officials about what happened to their last attempt to visit the largest moon of Mars, Phobos. The weirdest remark was by American lunar astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who claimed (during a C-SPAN interview) that there is a monolith on Phobos. As can be seen from the chart below, the Russians have had two previous unsuccessful missions to Phobos, although some photos were transmitted on their last mission before the probe was lost. Earlier coverage from the Washington Post about their newest failure is posted after the chart and figures below. One sad effect of the Russian failures is that they have not provided any data that can be used to back NASA/JPL assertions about low Martian air pressure, or my own assertions that NASA/JPL is wrong. We can, however, point to recent findings about water vapor on Mars by the European Space Agency and even later findings about Martian soil being 2% water that are more consistant with our findings than NASA/JPL findings. There are critical problems with Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity and its pressure sensor (identical to one used on Phoenix).

       Originally I wrore that the magnitude of the loss of Phobos Grunt is even greater if Dr. Robert Zubrin's assertions are correct. He claimed that after the MSL Curiosity is launched, and the MAVEN orbiter scheduled for 2013 is sent up, that will be it. No further missions to anywhere were planned. However since he said that NASA indicated that there will be another lander similar to MSL that is schedule to lauch in 2020. There will also be launch of the European Space Agency's ExoMars Rover in 2018. The  ExoMars mission will feature the landing of a rover that is the result of a joing ESA - Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).


Mission Launch Date Landing Date Termination Date Result Weather/Pressure  Data?
Soviet Sputnik 24 4 Nov 1962   19 Jan 1963 Failure.   No
Soviet Mars 3 28 May 1971 2 Dec 1971 2 Dec 1971 Failure. Landed, but transmission ceased within 15 seconds No
Soviet Mars 6 5 Aug 1973 12 Mar 1974 12 Mar 1974 Failure. Data during descent, not after landing. No
Soviet Mars 7 9 Aug 1973 9 Mar 1974 9 Mar 1974 Failure.    No
Soviet Phobos 1 7 Jul 1988   2 Sep 1988 Failure.   No
Soviet Phobos 2 12 Jul 1988   29 Jul 1989 Failure.   No
Phobos Grunt 8 Nov 2011     Failure.   No

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January 10, 2011.

By Michael Carroll


Phobos-Grunt, the latest in a long list of failed space endeavors by the Russians, is pictured here burning up as it reenters the atmosphere (artist's impression).

Some recent Russian satellite failures may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, Russia's space chief said Tuesday, in comments apparently aimed at the United States.

       Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any specific country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview in the daily Izvestia he said some Russian craft had suffered "unexplained" malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation's tracking facilities.

      Popovkin spoke when asked about the failure of the $170-million unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of Mars' two moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. Engineers in Russia and the European Space Agency have failed to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, and it is expected to fall back to Earth around Jan. 15.

       Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin's comments, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed that foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country's satellites.

Popovkin said modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influences.

       "I wouldn't like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can't be excluded," he said.

James Oberg, a NASA veteran who has written books on the Russian space program and now works as a space consultant, said Popovkin's comments were a sad example of the Russian cultural instinct to 'blame foreigners.'

       "It's a feature of space launch trajectories that orbital adjustments must be made halfway around the first orbit to circularize and stabilize subsequent orbits," Oberg said in e-mailed comments.

      "The Russians must know that simple geography -- not evildoers lurking in shadows -- dictate where their communications 'blind spots' are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong," he said.

       The failed Phobos mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country's space industries and raised pressure on Popovkin. Space officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging work force.

       Popovkin also said in 2013, Russia will launch three new communications satellites that will be able to retransmit signals from other Russian spacecraft as they fly over another hemisphere.

       A retired Russian general alleged last November that the Phobos-Ground satellite might have been incapacitated by a powerful U.S. radar. Nikolai Rodionov, who previously was in charge of Russia's early warning system, was quoted as saying that a powerful electromagnetic impulse generated by U.S. radar in Alaska might have affected the probe's control system.

       Popovkin said experts have so far failed to determine why the Phobos-Ground probe's engines failed to fire, but admitted the program had suffered from funding shortages that led to some "risky technological solutions."

       The spacecraft was supposed to collect soil samples on Phobos and fly them back to Earth in one of the most challenging unmanned interplanetary missions ever. It was Russia's first foray beyond the Earth orbit since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.

       Scientists had hoped that studies of Phobos' surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's a piece of debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

Read more: 
A FEW WORDS ABOUT PHOBOS SPECULATION HISTORY. The possibility of Martian moons had been speculated long before their discovery by Asaph Hall in 1877. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) even predicted their number correctly, although with faulty logic: he wrote that since Jupiter had four known moons and Earth had one, it was only natural that Mars should have two. Perhaps inspired by Kepler (and quoting Kepler's third law), Jonathan Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels (1726) refers to two moons in Part 3, Chapter 3 (the "Voyage to Laputa"), in which the astronomers of Laputa (a round, metallic flying island that sounds a lot like a flying saucer) are described as having discovered two satellites of Mars orbiting at distances of 3 and 5 Martian diameters, and periods of 10 and 21.5 hours, respectively. The current orbital distances and periods of Phobos and Deimos of 1.4 and 3.5 Martian diameters, and 7.6 and 30.3 hours, respectively. The orbital periods are roughly similar to those guessed by Swift, but the radii were too big by about a factor of two.

Voltaire's 1750 short story Micromégas, about an alien visitor to Earth, also refers to two moons of Mars. Voltaire was presumably influenced by Swift. In recognition of these 'predictions', two craters on Deimos are named Swift and Voltaire. It should be noted that Gulliver’s Travels portrays weaknesses of humanity in way that is reminiscent of what an might perceive. People are shown to go to war over foolish divisions in ideology (which end of an egg to crack first), to be cruel to animals by caging them for fun, as people do with animals in zoos or birds in cages, and to be less environmentally sensitive than animals. Indeed, when we consider joining of an alien-like observation of our species with a fairly accurate description of the moons of Mars 150 years before we had a telescope big enough to see them, we cannot overlook the possibility that Swift drew on a close encounter with extraterrestrials as the real inspiration for his marvelous novel.

       Modern speculation about Phobos is based upon the manner in which the Soviet Phobos 2 was lost, photographs of questionable significance, and alarming statements by Soviet officials and, of course, the remarks by Buzz Aldrin. There have also long been claims that Phobos is hollow. Mapping by the Mars Express probe and subsequent volume calculations do suggest the presence of voids within the moon and indicate that it is not a solid chunk of rock but a porous body instead. The porosity of Phobos was calculated to be 30% ± 5%, or a quarter to a third of the moon being hollow. This void space is supposedly mostly on small scales (millimeters to ~1-m), between individual grains and boulders. However, if so much space is empty, there may, of course, be larger voids that could prove useful for intelligent purposes. One thing is sure; the Russians have now focused three times on Phobos with their Mars missions. Perhaps they think they will find the real inspiration for the writings of Swift and Voltaire there. But with U.S. funding for Mars missions in jeopardy, there may have already been a decision made to ensure that we never arrive at the answer. If this is true, given the low salaries of technicians working in the Russian space program, it’s ever so easy to do what the matrix suggests – sabotage any effort to successfully put a rocket on the surface of the Martian moon.

Earlier News Coverage from November 10, 2011: Russians Trying To Revive Mars Rocket Stuck In Earth's Orbit.

The Washington Post (11/10, Vastag) reports that engineers are "scrambling to save" Russia's latest Mars mission. "Known as Phobos-Grunt, the spacecraft, loaded with scientific instruments, lifted off early Wednesday morning Moscow time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan," and is Russia's first spacecraft destined for orbit beyond Earth since 1996. However, "after reaching orbit around the Earth, the 15-ton spacecraft failed to fire its upper-stage rocket as scheduled." Now, engineers are attempting to find a way to reignite the upper-stage rocket. A restart of that rocket was expected late yesterday. Only the Baikonur communications station can send instructions to the rocket, which complicates efforts to push it beyond the earth's orbit as planned. If the satellite cannot be rescued, it fall will back to Earth.

        The AP (11/10, Press) reports, "A Russian spacecraft on its way to Mars with 12 tons of toxic fuel is stuck circling the wrong planet: ours." However, "most US space debris experts think the fuel on board would explode harmlessly in the upper atmosphere and never reach the ground" if rescue attempts fail. Currently the Phobos-Ground craft is "flying between 129 and 212 miles above Earth." American satellite tracking indicates that the craft's orbit is already deteriorating. NASA chief debris scientist Nicholas Johnson said, "From the orbits we're seeing from the US Space Surveillance Network, it's going to be a couple weeks before it comes in." Space consultant James Oberg said that on Wednesday, the US grew "more confident" that Russia could fix the rocket since there have been no sightings of explosions or partial rocket firings since rocket get stuck in Earth's orbit. The Planetary Society in the United States sent a $500,000 experiment on board Phobos-Ground.

Similarly, the New York Times (11/10, Fountain, Subscription Publication) reports, "Russian space engineers scrambled Wednesday to salvage an ambitious science mission to Mars after the unmanned spacecraft became stranded in Earth orbit." The craft is "a high-stakes effort to bring back soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos - and to return Russia to prominence in planetary exploration after a long dry spell - was launched from Kazakhstan atop a Zenit rocket early Wednesday." Russian officials characterized Wednesday's launch as "normal." However, "An unnamed person in Russia's space industry told the Interfax news agency that there had been warnings before the launching that glitches in the probe's command and control system had not been fully resolved." NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said that the agency stands ready to help should Roscosmos need it.

Figure below: Laputa, as described in GULLIVERS'S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift. The 4.5 mile diameter flying island with an adamantine base, can maneuver using magnetic levitation. Its educated population are fond of mathematics, astronomy, music and technology. They discovered 2 moons of Mars (which in reality would not be discovered for another 150 years).