Phobos Grunt Mars Probe killed by a software glitch…maybe

Phobos Grunt Mars Satellite

Phobos Grunt Mars Satellite

The ambitious Russian Mars probe which was supposed to place a lander on Phobos was doomed by a software glitch say Russian officials. “a programming error which led to a simultaneous reboot of two working channels of an onboard computer,” according to RIA Novosti. With both of the main spacecraft computers down the doomed probe basically lost it’s mind. Even with that after the reboot the probe’s design still should have allow communication to be re-established. All satellites are normally designed to survive a computer reboot and will come back in a safe mode waiting for commands from the ground. This admission by Russian officials confirms and editoral published here on KnowledgeOrb which said the root cause of the failure  was not the the hardware or software but the state of the Russian space program itself.

Shortly after the November launch of Phobos Grunt it was supposed to fire its thrusters and start it’s trip to mars. This never happened, the probe lost contact with the ground and it now appears that due to the spacecraft computer reboot it went into a sun point safe mode…maybe. This is what is supposed to happen and should have been followed by re-establishment of communications with the ground. Ground tracking indicated that the probe actually raised it’s orbit after launch which until now went unexplained. It now appears that the satellite fired it’s thrusters about ten times as it was supposed to in order to settle the on board fuel and prepare for the main firing which would insert it on a trajectory to Mars. The change in the orbit of the probe was detected by U.S. tracking satellites.

Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos, told Russian reporters radiation damage could have caused the unexpected computer crash. The probe never made it out of low Earth orbit and was still protected by the Earths magnetic field putting this in doubt. In addition a radiation hit would most likely not have effected both computers.

Former Planetary Society executive director Louis Friedman said “Cheap parts, design shortcomings, and lack of pre-flight testing ensured that the spacecraft would never fulfill its goals,”  in a posting on the Planetary Society website. The official failure report lists the use of computer components not qualified for spaceflight as the root cause for the failure. Hard to believe if true when you consider the probe was supposed to go to Mars which requires years exposed to the harsh radiation environment of space outside the protection of Earths magnet field.

Phobos Grunt was a complex challenging mission for any space agency to undertake. Landing a probe on the moon Phobos and returning samples safely to Earth was ambitious to say the least. If the report is correct about the failure the probe never had a chance. Even of the computers survived there were probably other serious design failures which would have caused the mission to fail. Hopefully Russia will try again, but this time learn from this failure and complete the mission.

 

 

About the author

Recipient of many prestigious NASA Awards including the Exceptional Public Service Medal and the Robert H. Goddard award. Experience includes working for NASA, as a contractor, in satellite design, construction and operations. Expert in the satellite operations concepts and ground systems including command, control, and science data processing.