Sunday, November 13, 2011

What Goes Up Mars Come Down

On 9th November, 2011 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Russians launched their Phobos-Grunt probe using a Zenit-2 booster rocket.  11 minutes later, just as planned, the probe separated from the booster however neither of the two engine burns which would have set the probe on its way towards Mars' moon "Phobos" were successful.

Plans for the Phobos-Grunt mission started around the mid-1990s and after receiving an initial substantian funding of 40 million rubles in 2007, the project moved from paper to production.  Initially slated to launch in 2009, there were a myriad of setbacks mainly due to insufficient testing and unfinished components and this launch attempt was eventually scrubbed when it became clear that there was no way the mission would be ready for launch in the 2009 window that allowed the probe to reach Mars and Phobos.

Normally when new, as yet untested technology is being used to launch an expensive payload such as this, there will be a series of launch and control tests run (as NASA performed on 9th November, 2011 with its 500 sec test burn of the J-2X rocket engine) before the actual payload is sent off.  A number of these tests were not run and apparently some team members were even questioning the reliability of the control systems just before launch.  So it seems that this mission, even after being delayed for just over 2 years, was still seriously under-planned and under-prepared.

What's now the result of this half-arsed attempt at launching a probe to Phobos is that as NASA launches their "Curiosity" Mars probe/lander on 25 November, 2011 (planned to reach Mars in August, 2012), the Russian Federal Space Agency will be attempting to narrow down the estimated point of its uncontrolled re-entry and touchdown of the parts of Phobos-Grunt that will survive re-entry.  Now, with around 7.5 tonnes of highly toxic nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine propellant and some (mildly) radioactive Cobalt-57 on board, this probe will be one of the largest and most dangerous re-entries of launched material to date.


The Outspoken Wookie

No comments: