The Soviet spacecraft that was poised for an encounter with a Martian moon is probably a total loss, a disaster that could precipitate a major struggle within the Soviet Union’s scientific community over the future of their space program, Soviet and U.S. experts said Thursday.
At stake are ambitious, unmanned missions to Mars in 1994 and 1996, and possibly a manned expedition to the red planet early in the next century.
Soviet scientists lost radio contact on Monday with the small spacecraft, named Phobos 2, and there appears little chance of recovering it.
“Chances to regain contact with the probe are very small,” Alexander Zakharov, a project scientist, told reporters in Moscow.
“It’s just horrible,” said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s School of International Affairs. Logsdon travels frequently to the Soviet Union, and he was intimately familiar with the Phobos mission. He said he fears that the loss of the spacecraft will set off a wave of infighting among Soviet scientists and agencies over the future of the space program.
“They are in a first-rate bureaucratic struggle,” Logsdon said in reference to changes now sweeping the Soviet Union. The scientific community is also facing challenges resulting from the restructuring of the Soviet system, and Phobos could have a serious impact on the space program involving more countries than ever before. Scientists of 13 nations, who supplied instruments costing millions of dollars for the Phobos program, must be counted among the losers in the failure of the probe to complete its basic mission.
The Soviets fired off two nearly identical probes toward Mars last July, but lost one in October due to a ground controller’s error. The second craft, Phobos 2, experienced some sort of failure Monday, only days before it was to send two landers down to the surface of the Martian moon of Phobos, completing the main objective of its mission.
Officials in the Soviet Union were still calling the mission a success in that the second craft did at least reach Mars and send back much scientific data on the planet before losing contact, but the landing of instruments on the moon, Phobos, was clearly to be the highlight of the mission.
The possibility of landing the instruments now is almost certainly lost, along with the work of scores of scientists around the world who sought a role in the Soviet program as one way of getting their instruments launched to Mars. Given back-to-back failures, it seems likely that many nations will think twice now about putting a major investment into planetary probes launched by the Soviet Union, many experts believe.
The failure could pose serious problems for scientists at Moscow’s Space Research Institute, an organization that is similar in many ways to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The institute is run by an elite group of scientists who were free to travel extensively throughout the world even before the current changes began to take place in the Soviet Union. They have many friends in the U.S. scientific community, and there are fears that they will pay a high price for the Phobos failures in terms of support for their research program.
Ironically, the failure of the Phobos mission may not have been their fault, even though they were technically in control.
Both Phobos spacecraft were the first two of a new generation of probes supplied by a Soviet manufacturer that is independent of the scientists.
“What’s gone wrong is this new generation spacecraft is a lemon,” Logsdon said.
U.S. scientists who are familiar with the spacecraft said the probes have limited communications and computer capability. Perhaps most important of all, the probes did not have the redundancies needed for one instrument to take over when another fails, so when the radio link failed there was nothing aboard the craft that would take over and try to solve the problem.
U.S. planetary probes, by contrast, have many redundancies, thus allowing a 10-year-old craft called Voyager to rebuild itself while flying in the outer reaches of the planetary system. Voyager will reach Neptune in August--the fourth planet it will visit on an odyssey that is without parallel.
It may well be that the biggest loser in the United States from the Phobos failure will be the Planetary Society, a major space-booster organization based in Pasadena. The society, founded by astronomers Carl Sagan of Cornell University and Bruce Murray of Caltech, has long pushed for joint Soviet-U.S. space missions. But major failures such as Phobos could seriously retard that effort.
Louis Friedman, executive director of the society, insisted Thursday that Phobos should be considered a “partial success” because of the data returned from Mars by the probe. But he conceded that the failure to put two landers on the moon was a major disappointment.
He said, however, he thinks that the impact on Soviet science may not be severe.
“I don’t think it’s going to have a major effect on their policies,” he said. “I’m sure it will have some effect on their engineering.”
He said it could also force the Soviet Union to spend more to make the space program better.
But the failure of Phobos comes at a time when there are many pressures in the Soviet Union for improvement in many areas much closer to home than Mars.
The loss of Phobos, Logsdon emphasized, “is a major setback both for the Soviet program and particularly for the people most closely associated with this mission.”