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Space fail?
November 9, 2011 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Yesterday, Russia's first interplanetary mission in 15 years launched sucessfully from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It ran into serious problems almost immediately. In jeopardy are a sample return mission from the Martian satellite Phobos, The Planetary Society's Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), and China's Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter.
posted by IvoShandor (40 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Russians have an unbroken record of complete failure in their Mars missions stretching back to 1960, with well over a dozen attempts either exploding after launch, failing to leave earth orbit or malfunctioning en-route.
posted by joannemullen at 1:27 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


They've done really well with Venus probes though, oddly enough.
posted by smackfu at 1:29 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


.
posted by bondcliff at 1:29 PM on November 9, 2011


Somewhere, Oliver Wendell Jones and his Banana Jr. 6000 are smiling.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:35 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


And there was me thinking they'd fuck it up by smacking the biological samples into mars.
posted by Artw at 1:42 PM on November 9, 2011


The Russians have an unbroken record of complete failure in their Mars missions stretching back to 1960, with well over a dozen attempts either exploding after launch, failing to leave earth orbit or malfunctioning en-route.

They've done really well with Venus probes though, oddly enough.


This is exactly why the Russians ought to allow gay rockets into their space program.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:59 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


What, they don't have Halo in Russia or Chinese? They should have known Grunts would be trouble.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:00 PM on November 9, 2011


They've done really well with Venus probes though, oddly enough.

This is exactly why the Russians ought to allow gay rockets into their space program.


As a sidenote, Mary Roach's Packing For Mars is well worth reading for some really Russiany Russians.
posted by Artw at 2:01 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


They've done really well with Venus probes though, oddly enough.

I feel like that is a setup for a "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" joke told with a Yakov Smirnoff delivery style. I'm so close to finding it, but I can't decide on the best way to incorporate the probes. Wait, maybe that was the joke...?
posted by mysterpigg at 2:03 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Time to update the Expensive Hardware Lob scorecard!

That said, I'm not sure that Russia's Venus probes did terribly well. The USSR had a very odd obsession with Venus, and must have coined the phrase: "If at first you don't succeed, try again and again and again and again and again."

Yeah, they succeeded....on their 15th attempt. Eventually, they even got good at it, and finally discovered that Venus is a barren hellscape, and a terrible place to land a spacecraft -- the atmosphere destroyed all of their landers within minutes. And yet, they persisted, and successfully sent over a dozen other missions to Venus (plus a few more failures, but who's counting those? (Certainly not Pravda).
posted by schmod at 2:03 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Union Aerospace Corporation needs to send in the space marines, stat.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:10 PM on November 9, 2011


Let me just take this moment to remind everyone that SPACE IS HARD.
posted by newdaddy at 2:17 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah, they succeeded....on their 15th attempt. Eventually, they even got good at it, and finally discovered that Venus is a barren hellscape, and a terrible place to land a spacecraft -- the atmosphere destroyed all of their landers within minutes. And yet, they persisted, and successfully sent over a dozen other missions to Venus (plus a few more failures, but who's counting those? (Certainly not Pravda).

Persistance, horrible grinding death in terrible conditions, then victory after many attempts - Venus is clearly the most Russian planet!
posted by Artw at 2:26 PM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Persistance, horrible grinding death in terrible conditions, then victory after many attempts

Nothing stops the Russian Venus Probes!

Our weapons are persistence, horrible grinding death in terrible conditions, and victory after many attempts!
posted by kmz at 2:34 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


These are the people on whom the US now relies for transport to the ISS? Sad.
posted by Cranberry at 2:35 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


These are the people on whom the US now relies for transport to the ISS? Sad.


Soyuz rocket and capsule are pretty reliable, so no real worries there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:43 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Shuttle has lost 2 crews since the 80s... I don't think Soyuz has lost any in that time.
posted by Artw at 2:45 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


"Phobos-Grunt"

Parents, take heed. Do not hyphenate your children.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:02 PM on November 9, 2011


The Shuttle has lost 2 crews since the 80s... I don't think Soyuz has lost any in that time.

It hasn't, the last Soyuz accident that caused a fatality was in 1971. However there have been several close calls though. Back in 2008, on Soyuz TMA 11, the service module failed to separate properly, which nearly killed the crew and put one on the hospital .
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:07 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Horrible grinding death in terrible conditions, and victory after many attempts!
posted by schmod at 3:23 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is far from the first failure of a Fregat, but they're usually quite reliable. The Fregat has been extensively used by russian geostationary telecom satellite missions, civil and military, with great success.
posted by thewalrus at 4:20 PM on November 9, 2011


These are the people on whom the US now relies for transport to the ISS? Sad.

The modern Soyuz TM and TMA are statistically quite a bit safer than the Space Shuttle. All of the deaths in the Soyuz program occurred with very early models. I would feel quite a bit safer flying on a Soyuz TMA than in a space shuttle.

Approximately 600 seats were filled on 113 space shuttle flights, or around a 2% chance of death.
posted by thewalrus at 4:23 PM on November 9, 2011


Brandon Blatcher: "It hasn't, the last Soyuz accident that caused a fatality was in 1971. However there have been several close calls though. Back in 2008, on Soyuz TMA 11, the service module failed to separate properly, which nearly killed the crew and put one on the hospital ."

The fact that a Soyuz capsule can survive a ballistic reentry without killing the crew is a feature, not a bug. If we've learned nothing else from decades of manned spaceflight, it's that failsafe backups are always good to have. Heck, one Soyuz rocket in the 1980s exploded on the pad with the crew inside, and they walked away from the incident (although there was apparently enough profanity shouted into the capsule's voice recorder that the cosmonauts deliberately destroyed it, thanks to the massive G-forces they had to endure when the Launch Escape System activated right before the rocket blew up beneath them).

The Russian's are often sloppy, but the basic design of the Soyuz is very, very good and robust, and has reliably kept the crew safe for quite some time now.
posted by schmod at 4:46 PM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's the T-37 of Spacecraft!
posted by Artw at 4:48 PM on November 9, 2011


Or T-34, even.

No, it is not a Cessna.
posted by Artw at 4:49 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


These are the people on whom the US now relies for transport to the ISS? Sad.

They've lost 4 cosmonauts in 127 manned orbital space flights, or one in every 31.75 flights, combining both the USSR and Russian space programs.

The Shuttle lost 14 in 135 flights, add in the rest -- 4 Mercury*, 10 Gemini and 15 Apollo/Skylab, and the US has lost one in 11.7 flights. We'll elide AS-201/Apollo 1, since it wasn't a spaceflight.

The last fatal Soviet/Russian spaceflight was in 1971 -- well before the first flight of STS.

So, yeah, these are the people on whom the US now relies on for transport to the ISS.

Sad? No.

* I said orbital flights.
posted by eriko at 5:44 PM on November 9, 2011 [11 favorites]


I was hoping eriko would show up.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:10 PM on November 9, 2011


Question: for these one-off, super-expensive science missions, why don't they make two vehicles instead of one? Surely making two identical Mars orbiters wouldn't cost much extra, since the research and design is the expensive part. They could have a backup rocket ready on the ground, and set things up to be able to use it in case the first one fails to make it to orbit. If the mission fails later, they'd at least be able to do it again during the next launch window for cheap.
posted by miyabo at 6:36 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


* I said orbital flights.

This completely cracked me up.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:47 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, once we (USA) end up gutting our space program and losing our expertise, Russia will have some fair competition.

Why is China piggybacking on a Russian probe? Seems like they could borrow some American rocketry plans and build a functional vehicle.
posted by dibblda at 7:57 PM on November 9, 2011


China already borrowed and modified rocketry plans - their manned Shenzou craft are based on the Soyuz TMA design as I recall. And the vehicle is very functional!
posted by ewan at 2:56 AM on November 10, 2011


Why is China piggybacking on a Russian probe? Seems like they could borrow some American rocketry plans and build a functional vehicle.

The Shuttle, as awesome as it was, had some obvious major flaws. Hence the return to a more Apollo like system.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:04 AM on November 10, 2011


Surely making two identical Mars orbiters wouldn't cost much extra, since the research and design is the expensive part.

It's not like making clean room space stuff is cheap to manufacture though. Given that, I think there have been cases where engineering test units were reworked as replacement vehicles in this kind of situation.
posted by smackfu at 7:26 AM on November 10, 2011


Question: for these one-off, super-expensive science missions, why don't they make two vehicles instead of one?

Because they're one offs. Why spend money on building a second vehicle you aren't going to use? I'm not an engineer, but I've hung around a few and I can hear the sneering at this: "What you can't do it right the first time? Then %&$# are you doing the building it in the first place, if you can't get it right?!"

Besides, it might be as cheap as you think. Check out Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, written by the designer/engineer of the LM, Thomas Kelley, for the back story of building the LM. Basically each one was in a sense handcrafted, and had to pass numerous checks for each and every system on each LM at multiple stages.

So while a lot of time and money was spent on the initial design and development, so few were produced that the manufacturing process didn't get to take advantage of economy of scale. This is another benefit of the Soyuz, as they're al

Plus, there's only such money to go around. NASA actually built a second Skylab space station, which was totally capable of being launched into space and used. But it wasn't because the money necessary to do so was deemed better spent on building the Space Shuttle because there wasn't a whole lot of money to go around. Similar factors are probably in play on building second vehicle for a single mission.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:54 AM on November 10, 2011


miyabo: "Question: for these one-off, super-expensive science missions, why don't they make two vehicles instead of one?"

Usually, we indeed do exactly that. The second one isn't always finished when the first one is launched, but there are many reasons why it's a good idea to have a second copy sitting on the ground.

(And the rocket isn't really the tricky part. Launch vehicles are practically a commodity. It's the payload that's unique to each mission)
posted by schmod at 8:35 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's sad but only because it's theirs.
posted by Goofyy at 9:08 AM on November 10, 2011


Surely making two identical Mars orbiters wouldn't cost much extra

This was, to a broad approximation, the point of NASA policy under Dan Goldin, which he termed "faster better cheaper". That ended with the loss of Columbia. (Unlike the engineer's decision tree of good, fast, cheap: pick any two, in practice the idea was somehow that cheaper was required, and the grunts were supposed to deal with that and be faster and better anyway.) Largely, this was all a reaction to the loss of a major US Mars probe, Mars Observer, which had been loaded with several science instruments and exemplified an "all the eggs in one basket" approach. Indeed, it began a very successful era for the US in Mars exploration, and was arguably fruitful in getting some other missions approved, but wasn't as "cheap" as hoped -- although planetary missions were still cheap by comparison with Shuttle, it was pretty obvious politically where the money was both coming from and going to.
posted by dhartung at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Update: They're not getting any signal back from the spacecraft. Looks like they're kaputnik. :(
posted by zomg at 3:34 PM on November 10, 2011


From the article: "Reports suggest the spacecraft attempted to orientate itself in space using the stars, failed to pick them up and therefore did not execute the firings as planned."

Interesting, is that the common way unmanned ships orientate themselves? I always figured there was some human intervention on the ground to help that process.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:37 AM on November 11, 2011


It's been pretty standard for a while now, Brandon. Shuttle had a star tracker system that is pretty much the same technology. Here's an off-the-shelf device. Here's how they work -- basically successive CCD photographs of the sky that are compared with a library and fed to some fairly simple algorithms for course correction.

In principle major burns are often double-checked by ground controllers, but comms lag makes that less practical for interplanetary missions.

For Fobos-Grunt, probably, had Russia had a base station in range, they would have gotten a plaintive "I'm lost!" message and been able to consider abort/recovery options. But it's these first big burns that are also often fatal for planetary probes.
posted by dhartung at 1:57 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


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