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UPDATE: Hopes Dim for Russian Mars Probe, Concerns Rise About Reentry

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Russia's Ria Novosti reports today that attempts to contact Phobos-Grunt overnight were unsuccessful. It quotes an unnamed Russian space industry source as saying that December 3 is the most likely date for the spacecraft to reenter if efforts to revive it are unsuccessful.

Russian engineers have not given up on contacting the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) spacecraft that remains stranded in Earth orbit, but hopes for a happy outcome are dimming. Meanwhile, concerns are growing about the hazard posed by the spacecraft's reentry because it is loaded with toxic fuel intended to take it to Mars.

The website of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, is eerily silent about the situation, focusing instead on the upcoming Sunday launch of a crew to the International Space Station. Itar-Tass, Russia's major wire service, also has no new stories about the spacecraft. As pointed out by Emily Lakdawalla on her blog at The Planetary Society (which has an experiment aboard Phobs-Grunt), all that is available are unofficial postings at various websites and tweets on Twitter that paint a grim picture. Anatoly Zak's site appears to be a good source of information, but also is unofficial.

According to Zak, a number of attempts have been made to contact the spacecraft, but all were unsuccessful. One problem is that the spacecraft's low gain antenna is blocked by an external tank of a propulsion unit and the high gain antenna remains folded. Further attempts reportedly are planned.

If worse comes to worse and contact cannot be restored, the spacecraft will make an uncontrolled reentry through Earth's atmosphere. Two recent uncontrolled reentries of defunct satellites -- NASA's UARS and Germany's ROSAT -- were uneventful, and since the Earth is 70 percent covered by water, the chances of space debris harming humans is relatively small. It is not zero, however, and a special concern exists with Phobos-Grunt.

The spacecraft is fully loaded with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel to take it to Mars and return a sample of Mars's moon Phobos. In 2008, the United States destroyed one of its own reconnaissance satellites, USA-193, that failed early in its mission and carried a full load of hydrazine fuel. The Department of Defense (DOD) argued that the frozen hydrazine posed a grave danger if debris landed in an inhabited area. DOD does not officially have an antisatellite (ASAT) program today, but was able to use a missile fired from an Aegis cruiser to hit the satellite and break it into smaller pieces that individually reentered within several days, minimizing the risk of damage to people or property. The "shootdown" occured about a year after China's first successful ASAT test against one of its own satellites that created 3,000 pieces of debris that still plague low Earth orbit (LEO) operations. Some say the U.S. decision to destroy USA-193 was as much about demonstrating that the United States was not without its own capabilities to destroy LEO satellites, and without creating long lasting debris, as it was about preventing potential damage from the hydrazine.

Whatever the case may have been with USA-193, the question now is whether Russia might decide to attempt to destroy Phobos-Grunt in a similar manner and whether it might ask for U.S. assistance. For the time being, however, Russia continues its efforts to contact the spacecraft and send it on its way to Mars.

NASA Briefing on Mars Curiosity Mission Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will hold a media briefing on Thursday, November 10, about the upcoming launch of its next Mars mission, Curiosity.

The briefing is at 1:00 pm EST and will be broadcast on NASA TV. Participants are:

-- Doug McCuistion, director, Mars Program, NASA Headquarters
-- Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
-- Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, JPL

Curiosity's launch is scheduled for November 25 at 10:25 am EST. The launch window is open until December 18.

Women and Mars Conference Webcast Link

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

The Women and Mars conference sponsored by Explore Mars, Inc. today and tomorrow (Wednesday and Thursday) will be webcast at this link:

The keynote speaker this morning at 9:10 am EST is NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. Three panels follow on why so many women are involved in Mars exploration, how to advance STEM education for young women interested in Mars, and a largely industry panel on "Getting to Mars." The day's activities end with an afternoon keynote at 4:00 pm featuring Penny Boston, Director, Cave and Karst Studies Program at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute. Two more panels -- on policy and on Mars science -- are on the agenda for tomorrow morning.

For the complete program, visit the conference website.

Russia's Mars Jinx Still Prevails?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The news earlier today was promising, but at the moment, it looks as though Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission is in trouble.

The spacecraft launched successfully on schedule today at 3:16 pm EST. However, tweets from numerous sources indicate that the two planned engine firings needed to place the sample return mission on its course to Mars and its moon Phobos did not take place as planned. We are monitoring reports and will keep you up to date.

Russia Still Hoping for Phobos-Grunt Miracle

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Russia's Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) sample return mission remains stranded in Earth orbit while Russian experts wait for the spacecraft's orbit to pass over ground stations capable of sending and receiving all the necessary data to troubleshoot the upper stage problems.

The spacecraft lifted off on time aboard a Zenit 2 launch vehicle yesterday afternoon Eastern Standard Time (EST), but the specially designed Fregat upper stage failed to place it into its Mars transfer orbit. Two firings were planned. Both were out of range of Russian tracking stations. As time passed, it became apparent that the spacecraft was not where it was supposed to be.

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, finally issued a press release confirming that the firings did not take place. An early report from Russia's RIA Novosti quoting Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin said that only three days of battery power were available, limiting the amount of time engineers had to troubleshoot and potentially resolve the problems. The Roscosmos press release issued later, however, said that about two weeks are available. It also said that the first opportunity they will have to obtain telemetry from the spacecraft is 23:00 Moscow Time (14:00 EST, or 2:00 pm).

Anatoly Zak at cites another Russian website ( as saying that a new attempt to place the spacecraft into the Mars transfer orbit will take place on November 10 between 03:00 and 05:00 Moscow Time (today, November 9, 6:00 - 8:00 pm EST). That was not included in the Roscosmos press release or in a recent RIA Novosti report, however.

Russia has been jinxed with its Mars missions throughout the history of its space program. Scientists around the world were hoping that Phobos-Grunt would break the pattern. The mission's purpose is to return a sample of Mars's moon Phobos, and to deploy a Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1. It also is carrying an experiment from The Planetary Society.

UPDATE 3: Russia Launches Probe to Mars's Moon Phobos

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: Anatoly Zak at tweets that second stage shutdown was successful. tweets that it "should now be in orbit" with two more burns to put it on course for Mars.

UPDATE 2: Liftoff!

UPDATE: is providing live streaming webcast of the launch.

ORIGINAL STORY: Russia is set to launch its first robotic Mars probe in 15 years this afternoon.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) mission is scheduled to lift off from the Baikomur Cosmodrome at 00:16 Moscow Time November 9 (3:16 pm EST today, November 8) according to Roscosmos's (the Russian space agency's) website.

The last Russian attempt to launch a probe to Mars was in 1996. The spacecraft, Mars-96, failed to leave Earth orbit due to a fourth stage failure, adding to the long list of Russian Mars probe failures since the 1960s. Russia has never had a completely successful Mars mission, although the Phobos 2 probe in 1989 returned imagery while orbiting Mars. It failed, however, in its primary mission to study Mars's moon, Phobos.

The spacecraft being launched today is designed to return a sample of Phobos to Earth. A Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1, will also be deployed. They will be launched on a Zenit rocket.

House Committee to Look at Future of Planetary Exploration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing about the future of the planetary exploration program next week.

Witnesses are Jim Green, director of the planetary sciences division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and Steve Squyres, chair of the National Research Council's recent decadal survey on planetary science.

Budget constraints at NASA are heightening concerns about what the future holds for the U.S. planetary science program. With the launch of NASA's next Mars probe, Curiosity, just weeks away, what will come next is an open question. Grand plans of merging the U.S. and European robotic Mars exploration programs are endangered by NASA's inability to commit funds to planned missions in 2016 and 2018. U.S. plans for large "flagship" missions to destinations like Jupiter's moon Europa are in abeyance until the budget situation stabilizes. In recent meetings of NASA's planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), Green has been alerting planetary scientists to the need to explain the return on investment in planetary exploration. Squyres, best known as the father of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, was just named as the new chair of NAC.

Still, in response to a recent op-ed in the Washington Times lamenting the state of the planetary science program, Green said that the U.S. program is still the best in the world.

The hearing is at 10:00 am EST on November 15 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

Events of Interest: Week of November 7-11, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, click the links below or check our calendar on the right menu. The Senate is in session this week until Thursday (Friday is a federal holiday, Veterans Day). The House is in a Constituent Work Week and meets only in pro forma session on Monday and Thursday.

During the Week

Russia is scheduled to launch its first robotic mission to Mars in 15 years. This mission, Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil), is a sample return mission to Mars's moon Phobos. It also carries China's first Mars probe, a Mars orbiter called Yinghuo-1. The launch is just after 3:00 pm Tuesday, November 8 EST (November 9, Moscow Time). One report gave the time as 00:26 Moscow Time on November 9, which converts to 3:26 pm EST November 8 (now that Moscow decided not to return to standard time), although reports the launch time as 2016:03 GMT (3:16:03 pm EST) November 8. Russia has been jinxed at Mars, with none of the many Mars probes it has launched since the 1960s being a complete success, and the partial successes quite modest. Its most recent Mars probe, Mars-96, was launched in 1996 and failed to leave Earth orbit. (Editor's note: The time of launch was given as 4:26 pm EST in an earlier version of this article, but that did not reflect the recent decision by Moscow to remain on summer time.)

Tuesday-Wednesday, November 8-9

  • National Research Council (NRC) Space Studies Board (SSB), Irvine, CA (no details have been posted on the SSB website other than the date and location)

Wednesday, November 9

  • Secure World Foundation, China's Space-Based Surveillance Activities, 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 11:00 am - 1:00 pm EST
  • Mark Albrecht Lecture on his new book Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War, George Washington University's (GWU's) Elliot School Lindner Family Commons, 1957 E Street, NW, Washington, DC, 5:30 pm EST

Wednesday-Thursday, November 9-10

Thursday, November 10

Russia's Space Program Still Relevant, Experts Agree

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 04-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

At a panel discussion yesterday, three experts on the Russian space program agreed that despite two recent launch failures widely covered in the media and enduring budget challenges, Russia's space program remains quite relevant today. In fact, the U.S. space program is more dependent on Russia than most realize.

Yesterday marked the 54th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet dog Laika, the first animal in orbit -- or, as founder and editor Marcia Smith commented, the "first female in space."

To update the space policy community on Russia's space program and commemorate Laika's launch -- just one of many Soviet space "firsts" -- the Secure World Foundation (SWF) hosted a panel discussion on the history and future direction of Russia's space programs. It included Russia's involvement in space sustainability and security discussions at the United Nations.

In her review of Russia's civil space program, Smith stressed that the distinction between civil and military space activities "can be quite blurry" and the Soviets made no such distinction until 1985. For the purposes of the SWF panel discussion, Russia's civil space activities were deemed to be those analogous to the activities of NASA and NOAA in the United States.

The 54-year history of Russia's civil space activities involved many space "firsts" that are often forgotten. These include, for example, the first robotic lunar sample return in 1970, the launch of the world's first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971, and the launch of the first space tourist to Russia's Mir space station in 1990. That was long before Dennis Tito, often referred to as the first space tourist, travelled to the International Space Station.

Russia's space science program, although it included some impressive space firsts such as the lunar sample return missions and spacecraft that orbited and landed on Venus, has been comparatively less successful, Smith said. She noted there have been "no transformative space science results" similar to the groundbreaking discoveries of the Hubble space telescope, other than the Venus probes. The Soviet/Russian experience with Mars probes has been one of failure and disappointment. Consequently, a lot is riding on the success of the upcoming launch of the Russia's Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. The probe is scheduled for launch next week and includes a Chinese satellite that will orbit Mars.

Russia's dreams for future human spaceflight missions to Mars endure, continued Smith, but budget constraints remain a big challenge. Russia has accumulated "extensive experience" in human spaceflight activities in Earth orbit over the past five decades, however, which would be a significant attribute for any such missions. Russia is part of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group that is looking at such missions on an international basis.

Russia also maintains an "impressive launch capability" with launch sites from the Arctic to the equator, she said.

Although a lot of attention is focused on the U.S. dependence on Russia today for taking crews to and from the International Space Station, the U.S. space program also is dependent on Russia for rocket engines for the Atlas V and Taurus II launch vehicles, Smith noted. The two countries actually are interdependent with regard to space programs, Smith explained, since Russia depends on U.S. funds to augment its modest government budget, needs the U.S. as a market for its space wares, and needs a space station. It was clear after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Russian government would not build a replacement for the Mir space station, its seventh space station; Mir was deorbited in 2001. To those in the United States lamenting U.S. dependence on Russia today, however, Smith said that "we did this to ourselves [there is] no one else to blame."

Anatoly Zak, Journalist and Founder of, detailed the history of Soviet/Russian military space programs. Also remarking on the challenge of any true demarcation between civil and military space activities, he described how the birth of Soviet space efforts was purely military and focused on only one project: the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The goal was to "outrun the U.S. Air Force" in the development of that "ultimate weapon of the Cold War," he said. The R-7 missile program was later converted to the launch vehicle that put Sputnik into orbit and began the Space Age. Sputnik's story is different than most people remember, he said. It was 99% a military program, yet, as a result of a successful Soviet publicity campaign, the perception remains that it was a scientific effort. He illustrated the fact that the tiny Sputnik satellite was placed into orbit by a large ballistic missile. It was the remnants of that missile, not Sputnik itself, that people saw as they watched it orbit Earth.

Zak went on to describe major Soviet/Russian military space programs. He stressed that from the 1960s they "mirrored" U.S. military space projects. Although partly motivated by need, they were mostly driven by competition. Zak said the best way to get funding for a program in the Soviet era was "to show the Americans are doing it."

Speaking about future plans, Zak explained that the main concern now is with the modernization of space assets and moving away from inherited inefficiencies from the Soviet system. These efforts are hampered by ongoing budgetary challenges and the perception that the government is "sawing money" - a Russian expression that means spending a lot and getting little in return.

Tiffany Chow, Program Manager at SWF, then analyzed the role played by Russia in space sustainability and security discussions at the United Nations (UN). She concluded that in the different forums -- such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) -- Russia continues to play a leading role while navigating between the other two space powers, the United States and China.

Chow found that the "most exciting and optimistic" development involves Russia's involvement with the UN General Assembly's First Committee. Russia sponsored a resolution there calling for establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to consider transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) for space. As sponsor of the resolution, Russia is considered a leading candidate to chair the group, although that decision has not yet been made, she said.

According to Chow, the GGE initiative not only speaks positively about Russia's interest in advancing space security, but is also the clearest example of Russia balancing its relationship with the other two space powers. China and Russia introduced the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT) in a different UN body, the Conference on Disarmament. The United States objects to the draft treaty. Russia has agreed not to bring up discussion of the PPWT at the GGE, which Chow believes is a nod of respect to U.S. concerns and shows a commitment to not undermine chances of the GGE succeeding. Finally, Chow said that the interplay between China and Russia could prove positive for international space security in another way. By acting as a broker, Russia could help China transition into a more responsible space player on space sustainability issues.

Interestingly, debates in Russia surrounding the use of funds for space are similar to those in the United States. Responding to a question about public support for space in Russia, Zak explained that the Russian public is mostly proud, but also cynical about the space program with many questioning whether funds devoted to space ought to be devoted to other, more pressing needs. Nevertheless, Zak said that he was surprised when Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin recently suggested that he would shift priorities away from human spaceflight. Zak said human spaceflight is considered a "national treasure" in Russia and it would be "political suicide" for anyone who decided to cancel it.

SWF plans to post an audio recording and the Powerpoint presentations from the panel discussion on its website. Smith's slides also are available here at

Shenzhou-8 Docks with Tiangong-1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

China has its first space station in orbit today, albeit with no crew aboard. The Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, launched on Monday, docked with the Tiangong-1 module that was launched in September.

Shenzhou 8 is the first of three spacecraft that will successively dock with the Tiangong-1 module over the next two years. At least one of the remaining two flights will carry a crew.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

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