September 15, 2009

Russian Mars Probe Faces Possible Delay

Officials are likely to recommend that the launch of Russia's leading planetary spacecraft, scheduled to take place in less than two months, be put off until 2011.

The aim of the Phobos-Grunt mission is to gather soil samples from Phobos, one of Mars' two moons.

Details of the suspected postponement were provided on RussianSpace.Web by sources within the Russian space industry, and the future of the mission is expected to be made public within a week.

The final decision will depend on the results of testing, which the spacecraft has been undergoing since July in its assembly facility at NPO Lavochkin in Khimki, near Moscow.

China's first Mars probe Yinghuo 1 will also be affected by the delay, considering the two crafts are going to be launched together on the same Zenit rocket.

The mission's tight schedule required that the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft be sent  to the launch site in Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 26 of this month, so that it could catch a narrow astronomical launch window to Mars in October.

According to a previously announced timeline, the spacecraft was supposed to be shipped to Baikonur in August, but was delayed until mid-September.

If the vehicle is ordered to be sent to Baikonur, then the launch will take place this year, if not, the mission will be postponed until 2011.

Despite all efforts, industry sources say the probe's flight control systems will probably need additional testing before being confirmed reliable enough to withstand a complex multi-year mission.

The systems will have to be proven fit enough to deal with complex maneuvering in Martian orbit, landing on Phobos, the takeoff of the return vehicle, and the final landing of the capsule with the soil samples on Earth.

Another issue that could result in the postponement of the mission is if there were a lack of duplicate failsafe systems at Russian mission control to guide the spacecraft into deep space.

Right now, the only working deep space antenna Russia has that has the ability to send flight control commands to Phobos-Grunt is in Ussuriyisk near Vladivostok. If they faced any serious complications in that area, it would be extremely bad news for the mission.

Another antenna, located in Medvezhi Ozera, could be capable of controlling the mission if it were upgraded, but the upgrade is not expected to be finished until sometime next year.

According to experts, launching the spacecraft with only one operational flight control antenna would put the mission in danger.

Just recently, Roskosmos came to an agreement with European Space Agency Esa to use its facilities in the Phobos-Grunt project. However, European ground control stations would only have the ability to receive data, not control the spacecraft.

Those in favor of the delay until 2011 reason that Russian scientists have not conducted a deep space mission in over two decades, and have not had enough time to prepare the launch for this year.

Two Soviet probes were sent to Mars in 1988, but one failed on its way, and the other followed suit soon after entering orbit. At least one of the failures was blamed on flight control. 

Russia sent its last probe to the red planet in 1996, but it plummeted back to Earth after the launch vehicle failed. Without adequate Russian ground control facilities, they were not able to find the exact cause of the failed mission.

Even though there have been unofficial reports that the project would have to be delayed to at least 2011, the Russian space agency and NPO Lavochkin, the probe's primary developer, still insist that the mission is set to launch in 2009.

The latest reports claim that the launch of Phobos-Grunt was delayed until the beginning of November this year, which would mean missing the available launch window to Mars.

It is unknown how such a delay would affect the mission, considering that launching outside of the astronomical window would mean they would have to limit the mass of the payload being carried to Mars.

Putting the mission off until 2011 might also have a cumulative effect on future Russian missions into deep space.

According to experts, Phobos-Grunt is pretty much prepared for flight, so it would not need much more funding to be ready for 2011.

However, the mission will require the same personnel and facilities being used in preparing the Phobos-Grunt project, at NPO Lavochkin and the IKI space research institute in Moscow, in order to design subsequent missions like the Luna-Glob probe.

The official schedule has the Luna-Glob probe set to orbit the Moon in 2011.

Image Courtesy NASA


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