Over five years of work, $163m, and hopes of finally breaking a streak of unsuccessful Mars missions, this weekend all ended in pieces in the Pacific Ocean. Fragments of the Russian Space Agency’s Phobos-Grunt probe crashed to Earth near the island of Wellington, off Chile, the probe having managed only a fraction of the journey towards its intended destination, the Martian moon Phobos.
The probe’s journey began on November 9th last year, launched from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazachstan. The purpose of the mission was three-fold; to collect soil samples from Phobos, study the Martian atmosphere, and investigate the ability of certain small organisms to survive the rigours of space flight. Phobos samples were scheduled to arrive back on Earth in August 2014, ready for examination and analysis by scientists at Roscosmos (the Russian Space Agency). Expert opinion is that material from Mars itself was ejected from the planet during past meteroid bombardment, landing on Phobos; hence studying soil from its moon might help us learn more about the Red Planet.
The mission was abruptly curtailed, however, when the Russian craft found itself stuck in orbit around Earth. This was the flight’s first leg completed without a hitch; the next stage, however, went badly awry. Had all gone to plan, ignition of two booster rockets would have fired up the engines for the remainder of the journey towards Mars. For whatever reason, these rockets did not fire, leaving the probe stuck in orbit all too close to its starting point. Head of Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin speculates that the probe must have been unable to find its bearings by the stars as planned, and thus could not correctly program the rockets for firing off to Mars.
Disappointing as the probe’s failure will be for Roscosmos, and for those eagerly anticipating the opportunity to study the earth on Mars, other consequences of the ruined mission were of more pressing concern. Just a few days ago the remains of the probe fell out of the sky, with around 200kg of material, in 20-30 fragments, ready to hit the Earth’s surface. Although our technology is able to track falling debris to a certain extent, the speed of the craft, and activity in Earth’s atmosphere, made it impossible to accurately project the trajectory of the falling fragments, or narrow down the location of impact to more than a continent-sized area.
Governments and space scientists anxiously tracked the fragmenting probe’s descent over the weekend before the pieces finally landed in the ocean, at a safe distance from human population centres. Although the Phobos-Grunt probe’s short life did not reach the heights it was designed for, there is some comfort in that its failure does not seem to have endangered human lives, property, or the natural environment.
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