Emily LakdawallaNov 10, 2011

Phobos-Grunt status, two days after launch

When I last left Phobos-Grunt, Roscosmos had not yet commented on the results of a planned attempt to communicate with the wayward spacecraft at 19:00 UT on November 9. In fact, no official statements about Phobos-Grunt at all have appeared on the Roscosmos news page since yesterday (though there is plenty of news being posted about other spacecraft), so we are left with assembling information from media sources. In general I'm trying to stick with original Russian language news sources where I can find them. But I have to point out that these are journalists, not officials, talking. And in none of the stories that I have found today is a named, official source being quoted, with the exception of the very first comment from Lev Zeleny. Apart from that, there are only unnamed Baikonur sources and "experts" with no formal connection to the mission. So there is very likely at least some garbling of the story going on, even before it gets run through Google Translate.

Phobos-Grunt exploded
Phobos-Grunt exploded

Bearing that in mind, here's a summary of what's going on as I understand it, based on a lengthy Interfax story, six stories posted to the RIA Novosti website, and Anatoly Zak's RussianSpaceWeb.com, with lots of help from commenters providing translations on nasaspaceflight.com and Twitter. ESA has been attempting to listen to (but not command) Phobos-Grunt, and has so far not been successful. More attempts are planned. It sounds like the spacecraft has actually only been heard from once, and that telemetry confirmed that the solar panels had deployed, the spacecraft had oriented on the Sun, and the Sun was recharging the batteries. After that point, the transmitter shut off, as expected. But no transmission has been received from the spacecraft since then. Russia's efforts are focused on commanding the spacecraft to turn on the transmitter at times when Earth-based stations (both Russia's and ESA's) may be able to receive its telemetry.

So here goes with the long version of news from November 10...

The earliest piece of news comes from RussianSpaceWeb.com. Zak says that Space Research Institute (IKI) director Lev Zeleny told him that the American military "provided significant help" in establishing understanding of Phobos-Grunt's current orbit, which is crucial to help them figure out when they can command the spacecraft.

An Interfax news agency report dated 04:00 UT November 10 states (my interpretation of the Google translation) that attempts to communicate with Phobos-Grunt yesterday were not successful. An unnamed source at Baikonur is quoted as saying:

"Over the past day ground control experts made several attempts to establish communication with the station" Phobos-Grunt. "Attempts were made to enter the link in the periods when the station was within the Russian tracking stations. However, while the station does not go to the contact and the likelihood that it will establish a connection, it becomes less and less. Experts believe that the chances that the plant will recover and make the start in the direction of Mars is very little."
quot;So far all attempts to pass on the device side software command failed. Such attempts last night, there were several, including the use of special equipment backfill at Baikonur," - a spokesman said, adding that the chances of rescue apparatus while there, but they are small. "With each revolution around the Earth apparatus loses altitude and speed. All this makes it difficult to follow up with them, in case if we can revive it automatic," - said the source.

Commenter "Cbased" on nasaspaceflight.com provided the following translation / interpretation: "The article says that there was a one way communication - spacecraft sending telemetry to the ground station. Then they say that in order to establish a 2-way communication and uplink the commands they need to be on the interim orbit (slower angular velocity and longer visibility periods). (Visibility period (min) * 8kbit/sec bandwidth = limited volume of data that can be transferred within the comms window.)

Going on with the Interfax story:

Stations of the European Space Agency (ESA), located in Kourou (French Guiana) and in Australia, will try on Thursday to get the "Phobos" telemetry. "Today, we will enable our stations in Kourou in Australia and receives signals from the apparatus of the" Phobos-Grunt. "If we can get telemetry from the device, we will give it our Russian colleagues," - "Interfax-AVN" on Thursday, the head of the Russian representation of the ESA Rene Pishel in Moscow.

He noted that yesterday and last night the representatives of ESA and the Russian Space Agency discussed possible aid that the Europeans may have to save the station "Phobos-Grunt". "We are in constant contact with our Russian colleagues and discuss with them what help they need," - said Pishel.The same story goes on to quote at length Vladimir Uvarov, who is identified as being a "former chief space adviser" or "former top space expert" at the Russian Defense Ministry, making remarks about the status of Phobos-Grunt. It's impossible for me to suss out through the language barrier and my general ignorance of the inner workings of Russian space exploration efforts how much of his comments are based on fact, how much are informed speculation, and how much are just speculation. I'll post his comments here because they're being quoted all over the international media, with the caveat that he is not actually a representative of the Phobos-Grunt mission. The ultimate origin of these quotes appears to be an interview given to the Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Российская Газета). However, I can't find this interview on their website. I did find a brief article quoting him posted later, in which his current title is given as "Major General." Here are Uvarov's statements, again from the Interfax article:

Former chief specialist of the Armed Forces of Americas Vladimir Uvarov finds that the station can not be saved. "In my opinion," Phobos-Grunt "is lost. This probability is extremely high. At least, it is much more [likely] than being able to revive him," - said Uvarov, whose opinion results on Thursday, "Rossiyskaya Gazeta".

The expert added that the cycle of space systems is very long, so the "cause of today's failures were laid long before, even during the former leadership of the Russian Space Agency." ...

The fact that fuel at the station is not spent, according to experts, means that the engine booster is not involved. The expert believes that this may be an echo of previous accidents with boosters. "From experience: making the re-work the upper stage is likely to fail. Apparently, the defect is more serious. The investigation is not intellectual error, and technology", - says Uvarov.

He explained that there are two systems of spacecraft orientation - in the sun and the star system of coordinates. If you prefer to build long-distance flights, the orientation of the stars, in particular, the system is looking for one of the stars such as Canopus, the brightest. "Most likely, the machine simply did not reach the zone where it was supposed to" pick up "star", - stated the general. "Summing up all the available information at this time, it can be quite probable conclusion that a bunch of" upper stage and spacecraft "Phobos-Grunt" are on the reference orbit in the "transport position" that is not workable solar panels, antennas closed, that does not allow engage them in active communication "- Uvarov said.There is a Russian-language forum, Novosti-kosmonavtiki, in which there was much comment and speculation about this story, beginning here. It's an unofficial source so I'm not even going to attempt to summarize what was said there, but if you're hungry for possibly unreliable information it's worth a read, as is the nasaspaceflight.com thread in which people are providing English translations of their posts, and Anatoly Zak does find the information likely enough to be reliable to post it on his website.

No fewer than six stories have appeared on the RIA Novosti website on November 10 since I last checked in. (All dates and times are UTC.)

The story from 07:32 sounded dire: the spacecraft was not heard from during communication attempts. An unnamed source at Baikonur could only speculate on the reason, running through some worst-case scenarios (in Google translation):

"In last night in connection with the device not included [successful]. Since there is no telemetry, you can assume anything, including that the apparatus is not oriented to the sun. Initially, he [it] was focused, and did charge, but then something happened, perhaps, that turned away (from Sun) and discharged batteries. And when the batteries are exhausted, then it is all" - the source said. He stressed that this is only one version, since when is not received telemetry data, "can assume anything."

"The worst thing in this area - when there is no signal from the machine" - the source added. Experts are trying to send on board the vehicle team, "but he responds to them, or not, so far no one can say," he said. The source said that attempts to establish communication with the device will continue. "Yet for some time before the end of the ballistic existence [that is, before its orbit decays] will try to revive him [it]," - said the source.

The source noted that the failure is associated with the control system, and not by the malfunction of star sensors. "The sensors are very reliable stellar orientation, they work on many machines and a good show. My opinion - this is a departure control system, the central computer. It may be a software failure, and rejection of iron [hardware failure]. The end result is the same - the machine is not working" - he said.At 07:48 RIA Novosti posted a story about how ESA has volunteered the help of its tracking stations in Kourou and French Guiana. Because of the spacecraft's low, fast orbit, radio contacts are brief, only six to nine minutes long.

At 08:29, RIA Novosti stated that another attempt to command the station would be tried possibly at 10:00 UT, but more likely, between 18:00 and 19:00 UT. (Take care if you use Google Translate to read that page -- Google incorrectly translates Moscow standard time as "GMT." In fact, Moscow standard time is UTC+4 hours.)

At 14:27, RIA Novosti gave a status update on ESA's attempt to hear the spacecraft that is unfortunately very ambiguous in Google translation: "Stations of the European Space Agency (ESA) located in Australia and Kourou, French Guiana, on Thursday tried to get information from the interplanetary station "Phobos-Grunt" , but data from these stations will be announced later RIA Novosti, head of ESA in Russia Rene Pishel."

At 14:43 came the most substantive story from RIA Novosti, which is again unfortunately somewhat difficult to interpret in Google translation. It again states the intent of commanding the spacecraft between 18:00 and 19:00 and then gives a summary of what is currently known (and not known) about the spacecraft's state. Since I find the Google translated version unenlightening, I'm posting instead a version of the article as translatedby nasaspaceflight.com member Svetoslav (not a Russian, but a Bulgarian, which is at least a Slavic language, so he's got a leg up in interpreting Google translations):

Russian specialists will try to turn on the main transmitter of Phobos-Grunt, says a specialist from the space industry. Today we have not only the Russians listening for a signal, but also a European base in Australia.

It was announced earlier that Russians will try to contact the spacecraft today in 22:00-23:00 MSK which means it's two hours after posting my comment.

During the first signal received from the probe it was found out that the solar panels have deployed, the spacecraft is Sun-oriented, and the batteries are being recharged. Then the transmitter was about to be turned off according to the on-board program sequence. He was then scheduled to be turned on several times after, but no signal has been received.

The good news is - the transmitter can be turned on if commanded from Earth. This is what specialists are going to do today. They will send commands to turn the transmitter on and they will listen.Another article was posted at 16:05, stating that, so far, the ESA attempts to hear Phobos-Grunt have been unsuccessful. Three more attempts will be made overnight.

Most recently, there is some discussion on the Novosti-kosmonavtiki forum, translated by nasaspaceflight.com user Vladi, which sounds well-informed but is again a highly unofficial and unconfirmable source, discussing the configuration of Phobos-Grunt's communications antennas and how they may be affecting attempts to contact the spacecraft. (Anatoly Zak also refers to this post as a source.) But his statement after these speculations is very much worth repeating here: "For all concerned, we are trying with our entire heart. For those who say that Lavochkin could not do anything [maybe: "is incapable of doing anything?" --ESL], please come to work as engineers with us. A young engineer receives 14 000 roubles [note -- about 500 dollars - Vladi] [I think this is per month --ESL]. We wait. And everyone forgets about Electro-L and Spektr. The first interplanetary probe in Russia for the last 15 years, just think about it! There should be a monument for those engineers that work in those conditions."

With the increasing probability that Phobos-Grunt will not be recovered before its orbit decays, there is increasing concern about what it might hit. One thing it will not hit is the Space Station, whose low-Earth orbit at 400 kilometers is well above Phobos-Grunt's. As for things on the ground: Phobos-Grunt is even larger the recently deorbited satellites UARS and ROSAT, and moreover it carries a huge load of unspent fuel that, according to various space experts including James Oberg, has a good chance of freezing before the spacecraft reenters, a circumstance that would allow it to survive without blowing up well into the spacecraft's reentry, making it "the most toxic falling satellite EVER."

Commenter Michael Khan has pointed out to me that Phobos-Grunt has been assigned the U.S. Space Command ID 37872, which means you can find out its orbital position and predictions of overflights for your location here. Or you can use my favorite tracking website, heavens-above.com. That site currently gives the orbit as 206 by 340 kilometers, not much changed from yesterday's 207 by 347 kilometers.

Also, I should mention that according to Doug McCuistion, who was asked minutes ago at a press briefing about Curiosity if NASA was helping, "We have offered assistance and if they need it we will provide it to the best of our ability. That's a different organization from ours. I am not sure if they have asked for such assistance, but we have offered it."

Finally, I've been remiss in acknowledging the role of space enthusiasts in bringing stories to my attention. Sometimes I'm getting direct information by email. Much more commonly, though, links to these stories appear almost as soon as they are posted in online forums like unmannedspaceflight.com, nasaspaceflight.com, or that largest of public fora, Twitter. It takes no particular ingenuity or investigative ability on my part to assemble these reports. Hundreds of space enthusiasts are doing the footwork for me (not really for me personally, but rather for their fellow enthusiasts, of which I'm just one), and my part has simply been to synthesize all that information that is being dropped so conveniently into my lap. So -- a great big thank you to all those enthusiasts who work hard to find true, reliable information, and to counter the uninformed speculation and idiotic conspiracy theories that tend to swirl around events like this one. (My favorite such "theory" so far is that the U.S. military used their mysterious X-37 space plane to shoot down Phobos-Grunt.)

My heart goes out to all at Lavochkin and IKI who are struggling to regain control of Phobos-Grunt, and I hope that they may yet succeed.

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