June 2, 2020

15.11.11-Hunting for Phobos-Grunt.

Have you seen me? (Artist’s concept. Credit: ROSCOSMOS).

By now, you’ve heard the news; Russia’s Phobos-Grunt (Grunt meaning Soil) spacecraft is stuck in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Launched on November 8th out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Zenit rocket designed to place the Mars-bound spacecraft worked flawlessly, and then… silence. Since that fateful evening, engineers have tried without avail to hail the stranded spacecraft. This loss represents quite a blow to exploration of the solar system. One of the first spacecraft to head towards Mars from the Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Phobos-Grunt was ambitious, with plans to land on the Martian moon Phobos and perform a sample return mission. And of course, the view of Mars from Phobos would have been stunning! Also lost was the 250lb Chinese Yinghou-1 spacecraft, which would have orbited Mars for two years studying the local environment.

As of this writing, engineers are continuing to attempt to establish contact with the spacecraft, but thus far to no avail. The loss is eerily similar to that of the Russian Mars 96 spacecraft that fell back to Earth near the Chile-Bolivia border after also failing to leave Earth orbit in 1996. Mars 96 contained 200 grams of plutonium fuel which was to power surface penetrator experiments, and Phobos-Grunt also carries its own variety of toxic fuel in the form of 16,000+ pounds of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.  Hydrazine is nasty stuff; F-16 aircraft use the rocket fuel to run their emergency power units. During our stint in the USAF, we were told in our yearly aircraft safety training that hydrazine “smells like ammonia,” but also that if you could smell it, it was already probably too late! In any event… all eyes are now turning from getting this spacecraft to Mars to just where it’s going to come down during re-entry.  Phobos-Grunt is currently parked in a 51.4° degree inclination orbit, similar to the International Space Station (both were launched from Baikonur) but of course, neither would be accessible from the other.  ISS astros did have the opportunity to attempt and get a visual on the spacecraft, and reported no flash of the engine attempting departure from LEO.  Phobos-Grunt is in a 208 x 334 kilometer altitude orbit, and completes a circuit around the planet every 90 minutes. Heavens-Above now has predictions up on their main-page, and I was able to catch it in orbit this past Saturday morning with binocs as it passed by the bright star Aldebaran. I’d say it was about a magnitude fainter than the star, between magnitude +1 and +2. I can also attest that the prediction was within 30 seconds accurate, and the brightness was steady, which suggests no current tumbling is being experienced by the spacecraft. The way the orbit has been evolving has suggested to some that perhaps the spacecraft is still able to fire thrusters on its own, although is unable to communicate.

Just what will happen to Phobos-Grunt? Well, current predictions are for it to burn up in our atmosphere by January of 2012; chances are that it will come in over the ocean (over 70% of the span of its orbit) and most of its hazardous payload will burn up on re-entry. The thought certainly isn’t a comfortable one, however, and there is some precedent to preemptively shooting down hydrazine-laden spacecraft such as was done for the spy satellite USA-193 in February 2008.  It’s a good thought-exercise to wonder what options might exist if we still had a space shuttle on hand, but we don’t; Clint Eastwood isn’t going to saddle up anytime soon and go after Phobos-Grunt ala Space Cowboys.

If there’s any lesson to learn from this, it’s that perhaps spacecraft need to be equipped with an autonomous de-orbit option. The bad PR gained by Phobos-Grunt will now no doubt be spun into negative press for the upcoming Mars Curiosity launch on November 25th with its own plutonium payload. Yes, we’re biased in favor of space travel, and we know we’re editorializing, but we echo the words of Carl Sagan in saying that “Space travel is the best use of nuclear material I can think of…” the previous launches of Cassini and New Horizons attracted a scattering of protesters and no doubt Mars Curiosity will be no different. They even co-opted two of our personal heroes, Michio Kaku and Ralph Nader to their cause, but I’m sorry, our Carl trumps your Ralph and Michio, any day. I feel that in this instance, the fears of the protesters are misplaced; coal-fired plants, for example, release substantial amounts of radioactive radon, uranium and polonium into our atmosphere every day. The plutonium on Curiosity is containerized in graphite and purposely over-engineered to survive a launch mishap. For example, plutonium discarded by the Apollo 13 mission near Fuji (aboard the Lunar Module to be used as part of the ALSEP lunar surface experiments) has never shown signs of leakage after decades of sweeps of the area. Again, not comforting, especially if it was deposited in your backyard, but like with questions of energy in general, space travel often presents the “devil you can live with” scenario… the alternative is to turn away from space exploration and become a “risk adverse” society.

OK, done editorializing now… let the troll-mail begin. Do get out there and watch for Phobos-Grunt as it makes a pass overhead in the coming weeks. Strange to think, this is on the heels of the recent UARS and ROSAT re-entries… lots of continuing drama in LEO!

Extra credit: Another Russian interplanetary mission has been long suspected of being the source of the infamous Kecksburg, Pennsylvania “UFO incident” which occurred on December 9th 1965… the failed Kosmos-96 spacecraft bound for Venus launched on November 23rd of that year!