Why did Phobos Grunt really fail?

Phobos Grunt Mars Satellite

Phobos Grunt Mars Satellite

Recent headlines were filled with a plethora of information about the reentry of the doomed Russian Spacecraft Phobos Grunt. There have been many rumors and speculation as to why it failed and even threats from the Russian leadership to throw the engineers responsible in jail and punish them.

There are theories ranging from out right sabotage by the United States, to accidental interference, faulty design and even aliens. The Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an unnamed source who said that tests are being undertaken in Russia to determine whether radar beams from a US military base could have caused a failure in the Phobos-Grunt power system that prevented its engines from firing.

We will most likely never know the actual root cause of this failure as there is just not enough data. The probe never established contact with the ground long enough to get usable telemetry data down to see what was going on. There were images of the spacecraft which showed that the probe was not tumbling and the solar arrays were pointed away from the sun. Due to the construction of the probe the array acted like tail feathers on an arrow an the drag naturally caused the array to point away from the Sun Depriving the life sustaining power from the spacecraft. When the attitude error occured and the probe could not correct itself it pointed away from the Sun due to the simple physics of the design…perhaps there is a lesson learned here.

This is only one possible reason why the probe disappeared and would not phone home. The original root cause is lost at the bottom of the ocean where it reentered. No matter what that cause is it will have it’s true roots in the failings of the Russian program itself. Complex designs and lofty engineering goals like those embodied in Phobos Grunt require an engineering culture and dedication that cannot be forced and must be nurtured. There are great engineers in Russia as there are all over the world, but with all of the recent failures of their program you cannot look to the flight hardware, the software code, or the rockets for source of the problem. The real issue is that the engineering culture and processes needed for success are not there.

The United States still has that culture and that has resulted in recent outstanding successes but they should not assume this will always be so. The Russian program has degraded due to it not being nurtured and the result is failure after failure. A once great program that could serve to enhance mankind’s knowledge of our universe is, at least for now, essentially lost. Hopefully other program such as the US, Europe, Japan can learn from this costly lesson and not allow the same to happen to their programs.

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