The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which was supposed to have traveled to Phobos, a moon of Mars, and back, crashed on Earth. The ambitious project crashed into the Pacific Ocean, on January 15th, between 4:59PM and 5:47PM. The exact time is still unclear, as the most advanced tracking equipment belongs to the US military, and is not available to astronomers.
The South Pacific isn’t a good place to crash, as it makes tracking objects hard since it’s basically large and empty. The probe broke up and only 441 lbs (200 kg) made it through the Earth’s atmosphere. The fragments are scattered over an area of thousands of square kilometers of ocean.
The probe was launched on November 8th of last year and was to make its way to Mars’s moon Phobos to pick up a soil sample and return with it to Earth. Along the way, it was supposed to deliver a small Chinese satellite into orbit around Mars. Something went wrong. The boosters that should have sent the rocket into its Earth-Mars transit course failed to fire, making it crash back to Earth. Astronomers haven’t yet found out why this happened, and they might never find out.
It could be the on-board computer that didn’t give the command correctly, which suggests a software error, or that the engine didn’t fire at all. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, states that the entire project aimed too high and that it was improperly managed.
In 1996, another Russian mission to Mars also failed after its launch. While the Russian space agency hasn’t yet confirmed its next mission to Mars, Russian scientists are in discussion with the ESA and NASA in an effort to join the ExoMars Project, which hopes to send missions to the red planet in 2016 and 2018.
[via Nature, image via CNES]