A Russian Cockup of Epic Proportions

On November 9th at 2:16AM local time, a pillar of fire went racing into the sky from the largest spaceport in the world, built upon the steppes of Kazakhstan. The rocket was carrying a hugely ambitious project that was to be the impressive re-entering of Roscosmos into the interplanetary exploration game. Atop the rocket sat the largest interplanetary probe ever built, programmed to carry out an equal ambitious mission. Roscosmos, the Russian counterpart to NASA, has a much more, shall we say, limited interplanetary mission success rate than the American space agency. The last completely successful Roscosmos interplanetary mission was Vega 2 in 1986. Yes, you read that right, Roscosomos hasn’t had a fully successful mission in twenty five years…. and counting.

It was fairly obvious that Roscosmos needed a successful mission, and they needed an ambitious one. No baby steps, these guys have been around since the thirties, under the name of the Soviet Space Program. This is the agency that put Sputnik in orbit and the first man into space, so they’re obviously no amateurs. Suffice to say that Roscosmos knows what its doing and launching an impressive mission shouldn’t be outside their capabilities…. right?

Wrong. Enter Фобос-Грунт, or for our non-Russian readers, Phobos-Grunt. The name of this probe is pretty damn self explanatory, with Phobos being the largest moon of Mars and Grunt literally translating as ground, or dirt-that-scientists-would-find-interesting. The job of Phobos-Grunt was to fly from Earth (our planet) to Mars (the planet that Phobos orbits around), land on Phobos (sounds hard, right?), collect some dirt from Phobos (ok, that part’s easy), take back off from Phobos (wait, what? It’s coming back?), fly all the way back to Earth (remember, that’s where we live), release the capsule containing the dirt which would then fall really fucking fast to the ground without a parachute. Falling from orbit at 12 kilometers per second (27,000 mph) without trying to stop is known as a hard landing in Russian space agency terms. The rest of the probe would then burn up somewhere in the atmosphere and the capsule containing the Phobos dirt would be recovered from somewhere in the desolate hellscape know in polite circles as Kazakhstan.

Phobos-Grunt approaching Phobos

That sounds like a pretty challenging mission, right? Something is bound to go wrong and screw up the entire mission, dooming Roscosmos to having another probe to put in their growing failed category. If I had to put money down as to which part of the mission would fail miserably, I would’ve said the landing on Phobos. Phobos is a tiny moon, irregularly shaped with a mean radius of 11.1 km (6.9 mi), orbiting Mars at 2.138 km/s in a highly eccentric orbit. It’s basically the opposite of our moon, and located around a different planet. Trying to land on it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. So what did happen? Did Phobos-Grunt smash into Mars or Phobos, never to return anther signal? Did the probe completely miss the target, now doomed to an everlasting orbit around the Sun? For a lack of a better descriptor, something much stupider happened.

Phobos-Grunt never left Earth orbit. The $245 million, 13,200 kg probe that would have put Roscosmos back on the interplanetary exploration map is stuck in a decaying low-Earth orbit. Eleven minutes after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard its Zenit rocket, Phobos-Grunt was dropped in an elliptical orbit about 345 kilometers above the Earth. As the probe orbited over South America, the cruise engines of the probe were due to be fired, boosting the probe into a 4,000 kilometer orbit around the Earth, followed by another burn that would have sent the probe hurtling towards Mars. Neither of these burns ever took place, and only limited radio contact has been made with the probe. The mission is a complete failure.

The orbit that it was temporarily placed in was never intended to be stable or permanent, so it has been decaying rapidly, with the probe now nearing 200 km above Earth. Pieces of the probe have already begun to break off and burn up in the atmosphere, with the entire probe expected to de-orbit sometime in early January. While most of the probe is expected to be vaporized, approximately 200 kg of the probe will hit the ground in an as yet unknown location. Roscosmos is hoping that the 11,000 kg of toxic rocket fuel, composed of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and dinitrogen tetroxide (DTO), and 10 kg of radioactive cobalt-57 are among the parts of the probe that are destroyed during re-entry.

Roscosmos has done what they seemingly do best again, and this time they’ve really outdone themselves. Phobos-Grunt was supposed to put Roscosmos back into the spotlight and it has, but certainly not in the way anyone wanted.

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