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As ESA reports – contact was finally made with Russian’s lost mission. ESAs tracking station in Perth, Australia, tracked a signal from the Phobos-Grunt probe.

In order to track the prove on its uncertain orbit, ESA engineers had to modify the antenna’s 15m dish in Perth. They widened the antenna’s beam in order to search a bigger area and catch the signal from the spacecraft. And they also reduced the power of the transmission to make it looks (or hears?) more like as faint X-ray signal the spacecraft would expect to detect at Mars, so it might trigger communication.

The Phobos-Grunt probe was built to land on Phobos (the Martian moon), take a probe of its rock and return it to Earth. The mission also carried on its back the China’s first Mars satellite – Yinghuo-1.

The Phobos-Grunt probe was an extremely ambitious mission (see References) especially if we consider that the last fully successful Russian (or rather Soviet) interplanetary mission was Vega-2 in 1985-86 (more than 20 years ago), and Fobos-2 in 1988-89 had only a partial success. I should also mention general limited resources and underpaid scientists and engineers of RSA (IKI).

On November 9th, 2011, the spacecraft was launched on a 350km-high Earth orbit. The initial idea was that its engine would fire twice: first, to put it on this orbit, and, the second time, to set its course to Mars.

For some reason, the second burn never happened (and that is the major issue to detect – Why the second burn never happened?), and Phobos-Grunt has continued to circle the Earth. It also lost all communication. Fortunately, despite its communication lost, the probe managed somehow to maintain itself in a stable condition on an elliptical orbit. It was loosing 2 km per day, which gave some hope to engineers that if this trend continues, the probe will be able to stay in space for at least a month, an in meantime they will restore communication with it.

Now, there is a hope that engineers can support further communication with the mission, and would be able to diagnose its problem. Is it the software or hardware issue? If it is the first one, it could be possible cured.

More about it at BBC News and ESA portal.

References
ResearchBlogging.org

Harvey, Brian (2007). The rebirth of the Russian space program 50 years after Sputnik, new frontiers Springer-Praxis books in space exploration, ISBN 9780387713540

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