Russia Mars probe failure underlined by successful U.S. launch

Russia’s space program has a bad case of the Red Planet blues.

As the NASA rover Curiosity, launched Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., streaks toward Mars, Russia’s Phobos-Ground probe is marooned in near-Earth orbit and largely unresponsive to commands from ground controllers.

Russian officials acknowledge that the narrow ballistic window for the spacecraft to reach Mars has closed, making it another in a series of failures for the country’s space research. Since the retirement of the last space shuttle in July, U.S. astronauts heading to the International Space Station need to hitch a ride with the Russians, but officials say Russia’s space program is suffering from worn-out equipment, a graying workforce and inability to attract a new generation of young specialists.


The $167-million probe, launched Nov. 9, was intended as a major step back into exploration of the deeper cosmos by Russia’s proud space program. It was to land on the Martian moon Phobos next year, pick up samples of dust and deliver them back to Earth.

After the probe separated from its main booster rocket, however, its engines failed to fire properly to set it on a path toward Mars, and it didn’t respond to signals from ground control.

Russian specialists tried to establish contact with the probe and reprogram its engines. Finally on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24, a European Space Agency communication center in Perth, Australia, made contact three times with the lost craft, establishing its whereabouts but gaining little more information.

“We got a signal and we know the object is out there, technically within reach, but we haven’t gotten any helpful information from it,” Alexander Zakharov, deputy chief of the Phobos-Ground project at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Space Research, said Monday.


“The apparatus is all but dead and it is a big, big tragedy and a huge blow to our entire distant space research program,” he said. “But it is also a big setback that it is dying out there silently without telling us what is the matter with it.”

After the window to redirect the spacecraft toward Mars closed early last week, the Russian Space Agency, or Roskosmos, publicly acknowledged that the project had failed.

“We need to be realistic … there are practically no chances to carry out this mission now,” said Vitaly Danilov, the agency’s deputy chief.

Both the U.S. and Russian missions were delayed from their planned original launches in 2009 until a new opportunity to reach Mars occurred this month. In contrast to Phobos-Ground, the U.S. launch went off flawlessly early Saturday after a one-day delay to replace a battery, sending the Curiosity rover on an eight-month flight to Mars.


Curiosity, built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, is a six-wheeled, 1-ton vehicle carrying an array of sophisticated gadgets that is to help determine whether life could have existed on Mars and whether astronauts could survive there. A Russian space research institute provided an instrument to search for hydrogen up to a meter deep in the surface of Mars.

Russian experts and officials agree that the Phobos-Ground mission carried a high risk of failure. Officials said 90% of the equipment was new because Russia hadn’t tried anything similar in 20 years. The equipment had never been tested in space.

But it would have been four more years before the next proper window to reach Mars opened. Officials decided to take the risk rather than scrap the probe.

“We understand it is risky, but if we don’t launch the apparatus this year it will be useless to do it in 2013,” Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roskosmos, told federal legislators last month.


Instead, Phobos-Ground added to a list of embarrassing space failures over the last year.

On Dec. 5, three satellites failed to reach orbit after being erroneously loaded with excess fuel. Then, on Feb. 1, a military satellite failed to reach orbit and lost contact with ground controllers. Another satellite missed its orbit Aug. 18 because of a programming error. Less than a week later, on Aug. 24, the unmanned cargo ship Progress M-12M disintegrated just minutes into a flight to bring supplies and research equipment to the International Space Station.

In between the second and the third accidents, several senior specialists and officials were fired, including Popovkin’s predecessor. After the crash of the Progress cargo ship, which used the same Soyuz booster rocket as manned flights, a planned crew change at the space station was delayed for a month to conduct an investigation.

The United States plans to regain its manned spaceflight capability in the middle of the decade with a privately developed launch system.


Popovkin said Russia’s space program is burdened by old equipment and an aging workforce. He said that more than 45% of the industry specialists are over 60.

In the 1990s, he said, “young guys graduating from universities didn’t go into the industry, but went where they could make money to survive.” Even now, things are not much better.

The average pay in the industry still is less than $1,000 a month. “They will not come to work for such a salary,” he said, promising to raise it to at least $1,300 next year.

In the meantime, the probe is silently circling Earth. Igor Lisov, an analyst with Novosti Kosmonavtiki, or Cosmonautics News, said it was still technically possible to bring the probe back to life and redirect it toward the moon or a passing asteroid.


Or, if it loses altitude, its aluminum fuel tanks are likely to explode in a shower of fragments and it could crash back to Earth by the end of December. Russian space officials say if that happens, it is highly unlikely to pose a danger to people.