Disaster for Mars moon probe

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2011, 12:00am


A Russian probe bound for a Martian moon, and carrying hi-tech equipment developed by Hong Kong and mainland scientists, veered off course yesterday in what Chinese experts called a 'disastrous misstep'. Engine failure appeared to be the cause.

The experts said the incident complicated the politically sensitive first joint space venture between China and Russia, and added uncertainty to China's independent Mars-exploration efforts.

The Chinese scientists involved expressed disappointment, concern and disbelief. 'We spent 10 years on the project,' said Dr Ng Tze-chuen, a Polytechnic University (PolyU) fellow and founder of the Russia-HK venture. 'Though we know Russia has had no luck with Mars, I did not anticipate that the probe would go wrong on the first leg of its journey.'

After separating from its launch vehicle, the unmanned Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, whose mission was to bring back a soil sample from the Martian moon Phobos, lost its connection with ground command and failed to reach its designated orbit, the Interfax news agency said.

The craft held a soil-sampling device from PolyU and a mainland-designed Mars orbiter, the Yinghuo-1.

Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said that after restoring communication and doing some analysis, they narrowed the problem down to the spacecraft's main thruster. 'The engine did not fire - neither the first nor the second burn occurred,' said Popovkin, at Russia's Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan, according to Interfax.

Popovkin said Russian space authorities would try to reset the craft's computer to ignite the rocket, but if they failed to complete the task in three days, batteries would die.

Hong Kong scientists had harboured strong hopes for this Mars effort after a previous one involving the British-made Beagle 2 landing craft, which was carrying their tools, crashed into the red planet and was destroyed in December 2003.

The Hong Kong device aboard the Phobos-Grunt is a soil-preparation system that grinds rock into sand for analysis - a step in understanding the evolution of the universe and the formation of Mars, according to a PolyU press release.

Yung Kai-leung, the PolyU professor who designed the device, was in Russia and could not be reached.

Zhou Yao, spokeswoman for the Chinese Academy of Sciences' National Space Science Centre, which built the scientific payloads of the Yinghuo-1, said they were shocked. 'For the last few months, our researchers have worked on the front line day and night. Our project leaders all went to Russia to monitor the launch,' she said. 'We could not believe our ears when hearing it. We don't know what to do yet.'

A senior satellite designer of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, who helped plan China's Chang'e lunar-exploration programme, said yesterday that the incident would cloud Sino-Russian Russia space joint ventures.

The venture, agreed upon by President Hu Jintao and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2007, was intended to show that a combination of Chinese money and Russian technology could produce competition for the US in space programme and plant the idea that the first man to land on Mars might not be an American, the designer said.

'If it fails, the mission may affect the planning and execution of future co-operation,' the designer said. 'The leaders of the two countries should stick to their original vision and join hands more firmly to face the challenge of the United States.'

Professor Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Peking University, said China should begin its own Mars exploration project as soon as possible, regardless of the fate of the Phobos-Grunt. 'Space scientists have reached a consensus and submitted a proposal for action to the central government,' Jiao said.


The year that the next window to Mars will open, if an independent Chinese Mars-exploration plan is approved, Professor Jiao Weixin says