Monday 16 January 2012

Fobos-Grunt crashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Fobos-Grunt was the most ambitious planetary probe ever launched by the Russian Space Agency (or anyone else on Earth for that matter), intended to travel to the larger moon of Mars, Phobos, and return to Earth with samples. Had it succeeded it would have been only the second probe to land on a satellite of another planet (after the European Space Agency's Huygens Probe, which landed on Saturn's moon Titan) and the only probe ever to have reached the orbit of another planet as returned home with samples (NASA's Stardust Probe previously managed to return samples from comet Wild 2).

A full-scale replica of the Fobos-Grunt Probe.

The probe also carried the Yinghuo-1 orbiter on behalf of the Chinese Space Administration, China's first attempt to send a mission to another planet, intended to orbit Mars for about two years, studying the planets atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field. In addition it carried the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment on behalf of the Planetary Society, an experiment to see how colonies of micro-organisms would survive the journey to Mars and back.

Unfortunately the Fobos-Grunt Probe ran into trouble during its launch on 9 November 2011, failed to reach the correct hight for the probe to separate from the launcher and head for Mars, and has been in an unstable, declining orbit ever since. The probe is thought to have finally crashed into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday 15 January 2012, at approximately 5.45 pm GMT, somewhere over a thousand kilometers to the west of southern Chile. It is thought that most of the 13 tonne probe will have burned up on re-entry, but something like 200-300 kg of tougher components will probably have reached the sea.

There have been strong recriminations in Russia, a country that has suffered a string of space accidents in the last year, with accusations of sabotage and the announcement of a new investigation into the incident by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. There has also been a degree of disparagement from sources outside of Russia (mostly from people who have never launched a Mars probe for themselves). In the light of which it is easy to lose sight of how ambitious the original probe was. It it is unfortunate that the mission was let down by a launch vehicle, but the planning of the mission and building of the probe reflects a considerable achievement in itself, and it is unlikely that this will be the last interplanetary probe to come out of Russia.