Sunday, November 13, 2011

Phobos-Grunt Flops, or, What’s In A Name?

It is obvious that the Russian Federal Space Agency does not have in its employ one of those multilingual specialists who makes sure that a brand name in one language doesn’t mean something embarrassing in another language. Otherwise the space probe intended to sample a piece of the Martian moon Phobos and return it to Earth would have been called something like Datari or Zeniflex—in other words, “Phobos-Grunt” would sound more like a drug, and less like a psychological problem. Far from being merely psychological, the spacecraft now poses a small but real threat to anyone residing between 51.4 degrees north latitude and 51.4 degrees south latitude—which includes most of the world’s population.

The Russians have not tried to launch a space probe for fifteen years. Phobos-Grunt (the Russian word that is transliterated “grunt” means just “soil”) had a noble goal: to fly to the larger of Mars’s two moons, take a nip out of it, and bring the nip back here so we could figure out why Phobos is the darkest large object in the solar system, among other things. Space probes that don’t use prohibitive amounts of fuel can’t be launched to Mars just any old time. There are fairly narrow launch windows, and the last one came in 2009 amid a near-panic-stricken rush which ended in the Russians concluding they’d better wait till next time.

Next time turned out to be last Wednesday. For a while, all went well as the first stage boosted the seven tons of highly toxic fuel and oxidizer, plus the three tons of spacecraft structure, into a low earth orbit from which it was supposed to take off for Mars. Only, it didn’t. Repeated commands to the rocket engines to fire were followed by attempts to wake up the system, and to receive any telemetry at all from it. Finally, on Saturday (yesterday, as I’m writing this Sunday) the agency admitted that the craft was lost. Its batteries, not designed to last long in Earth orbit, will run down soon, and after that it becomes a hazardous piece of space junk whose orbit will decay inside of a month. NASA is guessing late November will be when the hydrazine and nitrous oxide tanks will (mostly) burn up in the atmosphere before crashing somewhere.

Before you rush out and buy satellite-collision insurance, recall that two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water. Still, it’s got to come down somewhere, and no one has had to adjudicate a situation in which a spacecraft launched by one nation has caused pain, injury, or the death of residents of another country. In peacetime, that is. Rockets launched as a part of war are a different matter.

It would be easy to criticize the peaceful scientific space exploration efforts of another country, formerly a space-program rival to the U. S. NASA has had its share of space-probe failures, although most of them are at least a decade old. Phobos-Grunt had a number of experiments on board, including an international one to see how well certain kinds of bacteria fared in outer space. It looks like they will get a chance to survive re-entry, but don’t put a lot of money on them making it.

The failure of an unmanned space probe is a different order of business from the failure of a manned flight. What makes this a little disquieting is that for the next several years, the U. S. must rely on Russia—or somebody—to ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station. As a matter of fact, this very night (late Sunday Central Standard Time) a Russian Soyuz is scheduled to take off carrying two cosmonauts and U. S. space veteran Daniel Burbank to the station. An unmanned flight last August using the same type of rocket didn’t work out when the third stage failed to ignite.

Given their complexity, extreme conditions under which they operate, and the onesy-twosy way space hardware is built, orbital spacecraft will probably never be as reliable as a five-year-old American car, for example. But you would think after throwing hardware into space for over half a century, the batting average of one of the major players in the business would be better than it is. Perhaps the Russian agency needs a little more of the famous transparency that has made NASA a favorite with engineering ethics writers. While transparency doesn’t automatically improve performance, it makes things very uncomfortable for bad performers, and that can be a good thing.

Best wishes to the space station commuters, and if you have any good ideas for a hydrazine-proof umbrella, send them my way.

Sources: The news on the Phobos-Grunt failure was carried by the Discovery Channel website at, and coverage of the International Space Station flight was carried by CNET at

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