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Phobos-Grunt: launch and failure




In the aftermath of Phobos-Grunt

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Above: A newly built Phobos-Grunt spacecraft might feature major design simplifications comparing to its predecessor.

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Practically immediately after the failure of the original Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, Russian scientists expressed strong interest in trying again. After all, they spent more than a decade preparing the mission to return soil samples from the mysterious Martian moon. The Academy of Sciences, RAN, which formulates the nation's space science program, officially expressed a strong need to repeat the mission in a letter to Roskosmos signed by the head of RAN Yuri Osipov.

Obviously, only after engineers sorted out technical problems which doomed the original Phobos-Grunt, could the new launch attempt take place. Moreover, funding for the replacement spacecraft had to be secured and follow-on Mars missions probably had to be re-scheduled in order to free resources and workforce for Phobos-Grunt-2.

The next astronomical window opening in 2013 was less then ideal for launches to Mars and it would come far too soon for any realistic attempt to rebuild the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Another window to Mars would open in 2016, however it was expected to be in conflict with the rescheduled Luna-Resurs mission, which received a priority from the Russian space agency after the Phobos-Grunt fiasco. Moreover, Russian scientists hoped to be busy with their participation in the European ExoMars project, also bound to Mars in 2016. As a result, the first realistic opportunity to re-fly Phobos-Grunt would not come until 2018. However the 2018 launch window promised to provide much better opportunity in terms of mass available for launch to the Red Planet, allowing to maximize payload and the maneuvering capabilities of the mission. Ultimately, the 2018 launch window was also taken by the ExoMars project, pushing the repeat of Phobos-Grunt into 2020s.

In any case, Russian scientists hoped that during intervening years it would be possible to rework the flight control system of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft thus eliminating the shortcomings, which doomed the 2011 launch attempt. First of all, it was widely expected to give back the Fregat upper stage its original job of sending the spacecraft from the Earth orbit on its way to Mars. (NPO Lavochkin builds Fregat for more than a decade and the stage achieved a good track record. However during the development of Phobos-Grunt, the company's management made a controversial decision to switch the internal control of the mission from Fregat to a newly developed computer onboard the probe itself.)

Smaller science program

Phobos-Grunt scientists also considered "unloading" some of the scientific instruments of the original Phobos-Grunt project onto the orbital module of the ExoMars spacecraft and, as a result, simplifying the complex science program during the new launch attempt to Phobos. In the meantime, some science instruments remaining on Phobos-Grunt could be first tested onboard Luna-Resurs and Luna-Glob missions scheduled to fly in 2016 and 2017. These two lunar probes would also give Russian flight controllers first-hand experience in managing deep-space missions, before they would embark on a longer, more distant and more complex flight to Mars.

Obviously, Chinese space scientists completely lost any appetite for hitchhiking Phobos-Grunt on its way to Mars. (The inclusion of the small Chinese satellite into the original Phobos-Grunt mission is widely credited with another fateful complication of the project.) Without a Chinese satellite, Phobos-Grunt could reverse to its much simpler pre-2007 design.

Speaking at the annual Korolev Readings at the Bauman school in Moscow in January 2012, the head of NPO Lavochkin Viktor Khartov said that Russia had had no other choice but to repeat the Phobos-Grunt mission after the harsh lessons of the original failure had been learned. At the time, the effort to re-fly Phobos-Grunt was estimated at three billion rubles. It was expected that Phobos-Grunt-2 could take advantage of some upgrades to the Russian ground test and deep-space communications infrastructure which had been made on the eve of the original Phobos-Grunt launch.

While the idea of re-flying Phobos-Grunt was clearly coming from the "bottom up", leadership at the Russian space agency did not reject the proposal outright. The head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin told RIA Novosti at the end of March 2012 that he had requested Space Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences (which is responsible for the formulation of the nation's space science program) to evaluate whether scientific value of the project would remain current by the end of the decade. (NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission was scheduled to return samples from an asteroid in 2023.)

Roskosmos also referred to the re-flight of Phobos-Grunt as a kind of "Plan B" in case the Russian-European agreement on the ExoMars project fails to materialize. However Russian scientists argued that both projects could've been funded and implemented in parallel. Still, the priority given to ExoMars during 2012 likely meant that the re-fly of Phobos-Grunt had to wait until 2020s. Speaking at a conference in Moscow in April 2012, the head of IKI Lev Zeleny said that Russian Academy of Sciences did propose Roskosmos to launch Phobos-Grunt-2 in 2020, to avoid a schedule conflict with ExoMars.

Choosing the launch window

As early as mid-April 2012, Roskosmos and the Russian Academy of Sciences reportedly approved the project. By June of that year, Russian space scientists cautiously predicted the possibility of re-flying Phobos-Grunt in the 2020-2022 period. Russian scientists also hoped that Phobos-Grunt-2, along with the ExoMars project, would pave the way to a large-scale international effort to return soil samples from Mars as early as 2024 or soon thereafter.

In August 2012, a list of Russian science missions proposed for international cooperation by NPO Lavochkin scheduled the launch of Phobos-Grunt-2 in 2020, followed by a sample return mission to Mars in 2024. During "Days of Science" dedicated to the 55th anniversary of the first satellite launch in October 2012 held at the Space Research Institute, IKI, its director Lev Zeleny said that the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAN, had endorsed the plan for re-flying the Phobos-Grunt mission in 2020-2021, following a lunar exploration campaign and the ExoMars 2016 and 2018 launches. However by June 2013, plans to re-fly Phobos-Grunt (by then renamed Bumerang) were pushed back to a 2022-2025 period, the head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin said at the meeting of the Presidium of RAN. Still, at the time, Zeleny expressed hope for getting seed funding beginning in 2014, which would cover preliminary design, NIR, of the mission. The project was expected to be included in the yet-to-be approved Russian space program covering the period until 2025 and benefit from the hardware and experience developed for the latest Russian lunar probes.

The 2014 draft of the Russian 10-year federal space program starting in 2016 requested 5.1 billion rubles for the project, which would enable its launch in 2025. In 2015, NPO Lavochkin officially promised that launch in 2024 on the Angara-5 rocket. According to the company, the Bumerang spacecraft would return soil samples from Phobos as the first phase of the Ekspedition-M (Mars-Grunt) project aimed to return samples from Mars itself.

Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: October 8, 2015

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Over Phobos

Artist rendering of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft descending toward the surface of Martian moon Phobos. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


Phobos-Grunt-2, along with the ExoMars project, could pave the way to a large-scale international effort to return soil samples from Mars. Credit: IKI


A depiction of Phobos sample return mission released in 2015. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

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