Update on Phobos-Grunt: Might the LIFE Experiment be Recovered?


Editor’s note: With Russian engineers trying to save the Phobos-Grunt mission, Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the spacecraft, provides an update of the likelihood of saving the mission, while offering the intriguing prospect that their experiment could possibly be recovered, even if the mission fails.

With the latest word from Roscosmos being that the Mars moon probe, Phobos-Grunt is “not officially lost,” but yet remains trapped in low Earth orbit, people are wondering what may happen over the next several weeks. Carried into space early Wednesday morning, November 9, Moscow time, atop a Zenit 2 rocket, Grunt, Russian for “soil”, entered what is known in space exploration as a parking orbit. After the engine of the Zenit upper stage completed its burn, it separated from another stage, known as Fregat, which now still remains attached to Phobos-Grunt. Ignition of the Fregat engine was to occur twice during the first five hours in space. The first Fregat burn would have taken the spacecraft to a much higher orbit; the second burn, about 2.5 hours later would have propelled the probe on its way to Mars and its larger moon, Phobos. From this moon, a sample of soil would be scooped into a special capsule which would return to Earth for recovery in 2014.

Grunt is still in a low orbit, because neither Fregat burn occurred. While the spacecraft is believed to be in safe mode and even has maneuvered such that its orbital altitude has increased, controllers have been unable to establish contact to send new commands. If communication cannot be established, it will re-enter the atmosphere.

In addition to the sample return capsule, Grunt carries an instrument package designated to remain on the Phobosian surface, plus a Chinese probe, Yinghuo-1, designed to orbit Mars. The mission also includes the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) , for which I serve as principal science lead of the US team. Carried inside the return capsule into which the Phobosian soil is to be deposited, LIFE consists of a discoid-shaped canister, a biomodule, weighing only 88 grams. Inside are 30 sample tubes carrying ten biological species, each in triplicate. Surrounded by the 30 tubes is a sample of soil with a mixed population of microorganisms, taken from the Negev desert in Israel to be analyzed by Russian microbiologists.
Organisms carried within the LIFE biomodule include members of all three domains of Earth life: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota. The purpose of the experiment is to test how well the different species can endure the space environment, akin to microorganisms moving in space within a meteoroid ejected from Mars by an impact event. If organisms can remain viable within rock material that is transferred naturally from Mars to Earth, it would lend support to the Mars transpermia hypothesis –the idea that life on Earth may have began by way of a seeding event by early organisms from Mars.

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

We know of microorganisms that could survive the pressures and temperatures associated with the ejection itself. We also know that during atmospheric entry, only the most outer few millimeters of rocks are heated on their way to Earth; thus, anything alive in a rock’s interior at this point should still be alive when the rock hits Earth as a meteorite. If life forms also could survive the journey itself from Mars to Earth, a Martian origin for Earth’s life would be a major possibility. It also would mean that life originating on its own anywhere in the Cosmos could spread from each point of origin, thus increasing the number of living planets and moons that may exist.

Numerous studies of the survivability of many of the LIFE species have been conducted in low Earth orbit, but much of the challenge to life in space comes from highly energetic space radiation. A large portion of space radiation is trapped by a system of magnetic fields known as the Van Allen radiation belts, or the geomagnetosphere. Since very few controlled studies of microorganisms, plant seeds, and other life have been conducted beyond the Van Allen belts, which reach an altitude of about 60,000 kilometers (about 1/7th the distance to the Moon), the Planetary Society arranged to have the LIFE biomodule carried within Grunt’s return capsule.

Over last weekend, the spacecraft surprised everyone by maneuvering on its own, raising its orbit. Due to this, the estimated reentry date was moved back from late November to mid January, meaning that the LIFE biomodule will be in space for more than nine weeks. An intriguing possibility that looms as controllers consider how the mission might end is that the Grunt sample return capsule will break off from the rest of the craft intact. If this happens, it could assume the stable atmospheric entry, descent, and landing that were expected after the return from Phobos. If this happens and the capsule comes down on land, we could recover the LIFE biomodule and test the state of the organisms packaged within it. The result of yet another biological test in low orbit, it would not be the experiment of our dreams. But, amidst the loss of a mission into which so many engineers and scientists have invested their dreams, a little bit could mean a lot.

Read more: http://www.universetoday.com

Stricken Mars probe stays silent

Russia Mars probe considered lost
Efforts to resume contact with a Russian space mission to Mars stuck in Earth orbit after launch have failed and the probe must be considered lost, Interfax news agency reported Saturday.
“All attempts to obtain telemetric information from the Phobos-Grunt probe and activate its command system have failed. The probe must be considered lost,” Interfax quoted a source in the Russian space sector as saying.
The source said Russia’s space agency would announce the failure of the mission in the next few days.
The space agency had said earlier scientists had a window of only a few days to reprogramme the probe in a bid to send it on its route to Mars. If this does not happen, Phobos-Grunt would fall back to Earth early next month.
The mission went awry after launch Wednesday when the five-billion-ruble ($165 million) probe’s engine failed to fire, leaving it orbiting the Earth rather than starting its journey towards the red planet.
The probe had the unprecedented mission to land on the Martian moon Phobos and bring a sample of its rock back to Earth, as well as launch a Chinese Mars satellite.
The mishap caps an inglorious list for Russia’s space programme in the 50th anniversary year of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space.
Three navigation satellites plunged into the sea after a failed launch in December and Russia has since lost new military and telecommunications satellites upon launch.
The accident also comes just days before Russia is due to resume manned space flights to the International Space Station that ground to a halt in August with the crash of a cargo craft.
(c) 2011 AFP – physorg.com

The Phobos-Grunt mission had been eagerly awaited by scientists everywher

By Jonathan Amos
Efforts are continuing to try to regain control of the Russian Mars mission that is stuck circling the Earth.

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was put in orbit on Wednesday, but failed to fire the engine that was designed to take it on to the Red Planet.

Engineers have been using tracking stations around the globe in an attempt to talk to the probe and diagnose its problems – but without success.

Europe has offered Russia its assistance.

The European Space Agency Spacecraft Operations Centre (Esoc) in Darmstadt, Germany, is now involved in trying to establish a link, using its antennas in French Guiana, the Canary Islands and on the Spanish mainland.

The US space agency (Nasa) has also offered to do anything that might bring the wayward craft under full control.

Doug McCuistion, Nasa’s director of Mars exploration, told reporters in a briefing about its own forthcoming Red Planet venture, the Curiosity rover: “We have offered assistance and if they need it, we will provide it to the best of our ability.”

Phobos-Grunt launched successfully on its Zenit rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was dropped off into an elliptical orbit with an apogee (farthest point from Earth) of 345km.

It was then expected to initiate two firings on its big cruise stage, one to lift it higher in the sky and the second to despatch it to Mars. Neither burn occurred.

So far, the repeated passes of Phobos-Grunt over ground stations have failed to yield any telemetry.
The Russian Interfax news agency reported a space industry source on Friday as saying: “Several attempts have been made overnight to receive telemetry from the spacecraft. The result of all of them was nothing.

“The chance that the station could be saved is very, very slim,” the translation from BBC Monitoring said.

“Russia’s ground systems located at Baikonur and near Medvezhyi Ozera near Moscow will join in these efforts in the evening.”

The community of citizen satellite trackers has, though, reported Phobos-Grunt to be in a stable orientation.

Michael Murphy from Dayton, Ohio, posted on Friday: “I just observed a pass of Phobos-Grunt and the Zenit second stage.

“The rocket body was tumbling slowly, and the probe itself appeared to be very steady as it passed.

“I did not get good timing information, but the probe was definitely steady. I saw no other objects along the track the probe followed,” he told the Phobos-Grunt thread on the SeeSat-L website.

Fellow tracker Ted Molczan from Toronto, Canada, has been trying to determine the precise orbit of Phobos-Grunt around the Earth, and thought on Friday he had seen the craft rise slightly.

“This could all still turn out to be due in some way to spurious [data], but I suspect the effect is real,” he told the same thread. “If venting is occurring, perhaps due to leakage from the propellant system, then the spacecraft could eventually begin to tumble.
If control of Phobos-Grunt cannot be re-established, the focus of interest will very rapidly shift to the spacecraft’s certain fall to Earth.

Residual air molecules more than 200km above the planet will generate drag on the probe and pull it down faster and faster – although it could be some weeks yet before there is an impact.

The spacecraft weighed some 13 tonnes at launch – double the mass of Nasa’s recently re-entered UARS satellite.

What is more, most of the 13 tonnes is made up by the propellants unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and dinitrogen tetroxide (DTO), both of which are toxic.

It was the presence of a large quantity of toxic propellants on the returning spy satellite USA-193 that the American government used to justify its decision to shoot down the spacecraft with a missile in 2008.

Landing site
If the Phobos-Grunt mission is truly lost, then professional and amateur groups will be modelling the decay in its orbit in an attempt to determine precisely where and when it might come down.

As with UARS, much of the spacecraft will burn up in the atmosphere; but any parts made of high-temperature metals, such as titanium or stainless steel, stand a chance of making all the way to the surface.

Indeed, it is the fuel tanks that often survive the fall, their spherical shapes enabling them to spin up and dissipate heat more easily.

However, the probability is that any debris would hit the ocean, given that more than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. This was the case with UARS and the German Rosat X-Ray telescope that returned to Earth last month.

But no-one wants to see Phobos-Grunt end this way. This exciting mission had been eagerly awaited by scientists all over the world.

Its quest is to land on the Martian moon Phobos and scoop up rock for return to Earth. Such a venture could yield fascinating new insights into the origin of the 27km-wide moon and the planet it circles.

The mission is also notable because it carries China’s first Mars satellite, Yinghuo-1.


Phobos slips past Jupiter

Earlier this month, ESA’s Mars Express performed a special manoeuvre to observe an unusual alignment of Jupiter and the martian moon Phobos. The impressive images have now been processed into a movie of this rare event.
At the moment when Mars Express, Phobos, and Jupiter aligned on 1 June 2011, there was a distance of 11 389 km between the spacecraft and Phobos, and a further 529 million km to Jupiter.
The High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express was kept fixed on Jupiter for the conjunction, ensuring that the planet remained static in the frame. The operation returned a total of 104 images over a period of 68 seconds, all of them taken using the camera’s super-resolution channel……
Read more: http://www.esa.int/esaSC/SEMHGWD1XOG_index_0.html