Russia vowed Monday to expose the officials responsible for the failure of a Mars probe that the military said crashed into the Pacific Ocean after being stuck in orbit around the Earth for more than two months.
The 13.5-tonne Phobos-Grunt probe re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere late Sunday, apparently crashing into the Pacific in an ignominious end to an ill-fated bid to relaunch Russia’s interplanetary programme, the military said.
It had blasted off November 9 on an ambitious mission to collect soil samples from Mars’ largest moon Phobos. But its booster rockets never triggered and the probe lost contact with ground control and spiralled into an uncontrolled descent.
“I’m taking personal control of the investigation into the reasons for the Phobos-Grunt accident,” Russia’s former ambassador to NATO and recently appointed Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote on his Twitter account.
Rogozin said he expected the Russian space agency Roscosmos “to name the anti-heroes” responsible for the latest in a series of space failures.
“I am expecting Roscosmos’ promised report on the reasons for the accidents, the names of the anti-heroes and also its view on the prospects for developing the space sector up to 2030,” he wrote.
He added that he would attend a meeting with constructors on January 31.
A lack of information about what happened on board is likely to hamper investigators in pinning down the cause of the failure, a source in the space industry told the Interfax news agency.
“There is practically no telemetric information from onboard the craft. There is also not enough supporting evidence to draw a picture of what happened on board.”
Russia’s space agency has said it believes fragments of the probe crashed Sunday into the Pacific Ocean, however the exact location where the probe crashed remained unclear on Monday.
“According to information from mission control of the military space forces, the fragments of Phobos Grunt should have fallen into the Pacific Ocean at 1745 GMT,” space forces spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin told Interfax on Sunday.
However the deputy space agency chief Anatoly Shilov said in televised comments Monday that the agency expected the probe to have fallen on Brazil, although it had no witness accounts or other evidence.
It also remains unclear how much of the probe burned up in the atmosphere and which fragments then could have made contact with the surface of the Earth.
Roscosmos had predicted only 20 or 30 segments weighing no more than 200 kilogrammes (440 pounds) in total would survive the explosive re-entry and actually hit the Earth’s surface.
Russian and NASA scientists have downplayed the risks posed by the fuel, predicting that it would burn up in the atmosphere before reaching the Earth’s surface.
The unmanned $165 million vessel is one of the largest objects to re-enter the atmosphere since Russia brought down the Soviet-era Mir space station in 2001.
Sky gazers reported the gold-coloured vessel emitting a bright orange glow as it traversed the globe in an eastward direction between London to the north and New Zealand to the south.
The craft was loaded with 11,000 tonnes of toxic fuel — enough to take it to Phobos — as well as a Chinese satellite it had been due to put in orbit around Mars under a landmark deal with Beijing.
The probe’s fatal end provides a bitter reminder for Russia of the prowess it has lost in the half-century since Yuri Gagarin’s historic first space flight in 1961.
The accident represents one of the more high-profile mishaps in a year littered with unprecedented setbacks for the once-vaunted Russian space programme.
It struck less than three months after an unmanned Progress supply ship bound for the International Space Station crashed into Siberia.
Russia also lost three navigation satellites as well as an advanced military satellite and a telecommunications satellite in the past year.