The engines aboard Phobos-Grunt, which is also carrying Yinghuo-1 and the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), failed to fire after separation with the larger booster. The Zenit-2 launch vehicle detached from the Phobos-Grunt on time and correctly, but the engine for the spacecraft itself failed to start.
|The Zenit-2 rocket launching Phobos-Grunt|
CREDIT: German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Russia has been unable to make contact with Phobos-Grunt, despite several attempts and opportunities to do so. According to Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, engineers have until November 23 to restart the probe's booster before it runs out of batteries.
Popovkin claims that this scenario is one that was prepared for and that can be remedied from the ground. He goes on to say, “We will attempt to reboot the program. The spacecraft is currently on a support orbit, the fuel tanks have not been jettisoned, and the fuel has not been spent.” There is still hope for Phobos-Grunt, and thus hope for the other two missions riding along with it.
Yinghuo-1 would be China's first foray to Mars. It was set to separate from the larger Russian probe in October 2012 and begin a year-long orbit of Mars. Its primary purpose was to collect data about the Martian atmosphere. On board it has a plasma package, a fluxgate magnetometer, a radio occultation sounder, and an optical imaging system. It also has two solar arrays to collect energy.
Phobos-Grunt is also carrying the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), created by the Planetary Society. The astrobiological experiment contains ten types of organisms and is a international venture, with cooperation from the Russian Space Research Institute, the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Moscow State University, the American Type Culture Collection, and the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Germany. The mission is to see what types of organisms can survive the harsh conditions of space travel. Please see the LIFE page for more information on their missions.
If Phobos-Grunt cannot be contacted then the $163 project will fall back to Earth in the following weeks. Reports are unclear as to how early it could fall back to Earth, with Russia saying no earlier than December 3 2011, and Western media sources saying as early as November 26. Right now this is all seems to be speculation.
I waited so long to write this because I didn't want to add to the rampant speculation that of course occurs when the media puts a spin on the story. I'm sure the media will soon be speculation about the spacecraft falling back to Earth and they'll tell the public just how likely it is someone will get hit by it. I'd ignore them and listen to the authorities on the matter, Roscosmos and NASA (if they say anything).
I will keep you updated as more information from real sources emerge about Phobos-Grunt and its passengers Yinghuo-1 and LIFE.