Sunday, January 08, 2012

Underfunding doomed Russian Mars probe

Mars has claimed many a spacecraft as victim, and the latest one, a Russian space probe, looks likely to tumble to Earth very soon.

Russia's Phobos-Grunt ("grunt" is Russian for ground or soil) mission aimed for a first landing of a probe on the Martian moon Phobos. Launched Nov. 8, the spacecraft reached Earth orbit but failed to fire the rocket that would send it on an eight-month interplanetary trip to Mars. It's likely to fall to Earth around Jan. 15, the Russian Defense Ministry concluded, the victim of a steadily dropping orbit.

"Way too ambitious and way too underfunded to reach its goal," space law attorney Michael Listner says.

The $163 million spacecraft carried a piggybacked Chinese Mars orbiter added late to the mission.

After weeks of attempts to re-establish radio communication by European Space Agency and NASA transmitters and fleeting hints of contact, Russian space agency officials declared the craft a loss last month.

Mars has claimed overly thrifty probes before. NASA's Mars Polar Lander, a $120 million spacecraft, was judged about 30% underfunded by an accident panel after its calamitous crash in 1999. Testing shortfalls probably played a role in the craft's landing rockets malfunctioning.

"The Phobos science team would like to repeat the mission using experience that we got working on this mission," said an e-mail from mission scientist Alexander Zakharov of the Space Research Institute in Moscow

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