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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Foreign Affairs: Russian Curse vs. Chinese Success


Phobos-Grunt being prepared for launch.

Russia continues to suffer under a curse. The Phobos-Grunt satellite, launched on November 9, remains in Earth orbit suffering a profound silence. The Zenit rocket carrying Phobos-Grunt had placed the exploration robot in a temporary orbit before heading out towards Mars and the Martian moon Phobos. However, the necessary signals to send the craft outward from Earth did not ignite the engines and the craft went silent. Russian and international scientists have struggled intensely to repair communications in the last couple of weeks. Suddenly, a signal got through a few days before Thanksgiving, and there was some hope communications could be restored as telemetry got through on our holiday. Thanks should be given to technicians at the European Space Agency station near Perth in Australia. Sadly, this success was not repeated and the robotic explorer remains silent now.


Phobos-Grunt launches on a Zenit rocket.

Recently Russia has had some mishaps with the Soyuz rocket series, prompting a temporary grounding of spaceflights to the ISS while engineers worked to solve the problem. With the success of recent launches to ISS, the problem seemed solved, but now the Phobos- Grunt satellite remains stranded in orbit, with the fear that it could crash back to Earth with a significant supply of toxic fuel on board.

This was Russia's 4th attempt to reach Mars. It had not launched an interplanetary probe in 15 years. The other three launches to Mars also met with failure. In 1988, Russia sent Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 to reach the planet. Phobos 1 failed soon after launch. Phobos 2 reached MArtian orbit, only to go suddenly silent and was never heard from again. In 1996, the launch of a Mars probe went wrong and the satellite crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Are the Russians cursed when it comes to reaching Mars? Actually it goes to prove how difficult an interplanetary probe mission really is, and how amazing the American results have been.

Meanwhile, China keeps launching satellites with uneventful regularity.


Long March 2D blasts off from China.

So far this year, China has made 15 satellite launches, and only one was a failure. China usually uses the Long March 2D rocket. Years ago China would have suffered more failures, but since their "acquisition" of American rocket and satellite technology from Loreal and other American space firms, they have had a much higher success rate. While some of the technology was improperly transfered to China as a result of Clinton administration "deals", some has been determined to be lost to China as a result of Chinese computer hacking and corporate spying.

This week China launched 2 satellites from the Jinquan Satellite Launch Center, testing new technologies and observing environmental situations in China.

Posted by Mark Daymont

Saturday

MSL On its Way to Mars!


Atlas V liftoff from Launch Complex 41.

At 8:02 a.m. MST, NASA ignited the engines of the Atlas V rocket carrying the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) on its way to Mars. The launch has proceeded very well so far, with the separation of the nose cone fairings. The second stage Centaur rocket is expected to fire at about 8:45 a.m. (Update: Stage firing and spacecraft separation confirmed - MSL is on its way to MARS!).


MSL rover in the lab with scientists.

The MSL rover (named Curiosity) is the largest that has been sent to Mars. Its wide variety of sensors and controls will enable it to explore terrain unaccessible to prior rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity and Pathfinder. Scheduled to land on Mars in August 2012, Curiosity is expected to run a mission length of 23-24 months. Those of you who have been watching Mars rovers so far understand that the craft may last MUCH longer than that.

You can download a PDF fact sheet from NASA at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/fact_sheets/mars-science-laboratory.pdf

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