Thursday, November 10, 2011

Which Way To Mars?

Shooting a rocket across 100 million miles of empty space is about as daunting a task as it sounds, a fact the Russian space program is once again learning.  Russia's first interplanetary space mission in over a decade is currently stuck in orbit around Earth, with its prospects of heading off to Mars looking increasingly dim.

Phobos-Grunt is an audacious mission, a decade in planning.  If all goes according to plan, the Russians will land a probe not on Mars itself, but on one of Mars' two moons, Phobos.  There it will scoop up a sample of soil (“grunt” in Russian) which it will return to Earth.  For good measure, a small Chinese satellite is also hitching a ride, to spend two years orbiting the Red Planet.  That is if all goes according to plan, which sadly so far it is not.  Phobos-Grunt lifted off perfectly from Kazakhstan on Tuesday, but problems started about 11 minutes into the mission when the main rocket that would propel the mission to Mars failed to ignite, leaving Phobos-Grunt circling the wrong planet.  One theory is that the probe failed to detect the stars it would use to align itself for Mars, and rather than rocketing off into space, the probe went into a safe mode. 

Russian controllers are currently scrambling to get Phobos-Grunt pointed towards Mars to fire off its engine before the rocket's batteries die, which could occur in a few days.  The task is not impossible, but it does require the controllers to remotely override Phobos-Grunt's programming and get the rocket pointed in the right direction.  If they can't accomplish their task, Phobos-Grunt will go down as another in a long string of failed Martian missions that includes Mars 96, Russia's last interplanetary mission, and a NASA mission that slammed into Mars when NASA controllers failed to convert a key command from miles to kilometers.  And, according to former NASA scientist and space analyst James Oberg on MSNBC, if Russian controllers fail to send Phobos-Grunt to Mars, it could also become the most  dangerous piece of space junk ever.  The booster rocket currently contains seven tons of toxic fuel, which could survive Phobos-Grunt's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Ironic since Phobos is Latin for “fear”.  
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