Red Planet Roulette: Russia’s Proton May Have Endangered ExoMars Probe

Debris Field Surrounding ExoMars Image credit: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva.

Debris Field Surrounding ExoMars
Image credit: OASI Observatory team; D. Lazzaro, S. Silva.

When European Space Agency mission controllers received confirmation that the the ExMars probe had successfully separated from the upper stage of the Proton rocket which boosted it to orbit, they no doubt breathed a particularly deep sigh of relief. Everyone had to be aware that the decision to use Russia’s Proton as the launch vehicle, one which was made out of near desperation after the United States said it could not afford the Atlas V booster which was the spacecraft’s original ride, brought with it a significantly increased risk of failure. Now, six pieces of that risk may be trailing it nearly all the way to Mars.

From an article in Popular Mechanics by Russian space observer Anatoly Zak,

“Shortly after the separation between ExoMars and the spent Briz-M, the probe called home, and the ground control center in Darmstadt, Germany, confirmed the mission was on a path to Mars. However, astronomers tracking the flight soon spotted a cloud of debris accompanying ExoMars in space. As many as six large pieces of space junk appeared on the photos taken by the OASI observatory in Brazil.”

While the probe appears to be okay and undamaged from what may have been an explosion of the Briz-M upper stage which took place just after separation, controllers will not know for sure until all the instruments are activated.

Notes:

Hopefully, everything will be okay and ExoMars will go on to make a valuable contribution to the exploration of the Red Planet, but the apparent very near miss raises questions about the launch of the second half of the bifurcated ExoMars mission which is due to blast off in 2018, as well as the decision making on both sides of the Atlantic. For Europe, the phrase “penny wise, pound foolish” comes to mind, as the European Space Agency has a spectacularly successful launcher available in the Ariane V, but elected to risk its fortunes on an already trouble prone Russian rocket (experiencing failures in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015) heading to a destination that the world’s first space power seems particularly snake bit in its efforts to reach.

For the United States, the sudden exit from a joint Mars exploration program should be particularly embarrassing, especially for a space agency that says it is on a “Journey to Mars” in relation to everything it does. Except it seems, when it is time to actually go to Mars.

Here there is plenty of blame to go around. Whether one wants to cite the budgetary black hole of the James Webb Space Telescope, the congressional/contractor obsession with SLS to the detriment of nearly everything else, or the inexplicable rising costs of the Atlas V booster at the same time a more nimble competitor was introducing a far more affordable alternative, the U.S. did not acquit itself with distinction.

An excerpt from this 2011 Space News article discusses the background:

“The budget pressures that drove ESA and NASA together in the first place have been severe on both sides of the Atlantic. ESA has been trying for months to coax the remaining 150 million euros it needs for ExoMars from its member states, and alternatively had raised the possibility of canceling the entry, descent and landing module that was to be part of the 2016 mission.

Even before NASA had decided it could no longer afford the 2016 launch, the entry, descent and landing package had been eliminated from the two-launch scenario to permit NASA to purchase a less-expensive version of the Atlas 5 rocket, Passvogel said. If ESA finds an alternate rocket, the package may be reinserted, depending on budget consequences, he said.”

The bottom line is that launch costs matter, and reliability does too. The real exploration of Mars, as well as the rest of the solar system, will be begin at the confluence of the two.

Posted in: Mars, Russian Space

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2 Comments on "Red Planet Roulette: Russia’s Proton May Have Endangered ExoMars Probe"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    “The bottom line is that launch costs matter, and reliability does too. The real exploration of Mars, as well as the rest of the solar system, will be begin at the confluence of the two.”

    Well said, as always. I might add: Exploration will begin at the confluence of Silicon Valley and the Space Coast.

  2. “the the ExMars” -> “the ExoMars”

    “be begin” -> “begin”?

    What’s really needed is an emphasis on making things boring: insurance and logistics. In particular, space programs need to move toward on-orbit teleoperative assembly from fractional payloads, integrating mission products out of components that are as standardized and modularized as possible. What if a module launch or rendezvous fails? It’s not the end of the mission — it’s an insurable risk. Get the insurance payout and fund the substitute. Then use even more logistics and insurance: move the integrated product outward from LEO using propulsion that relies on orbital fuel depots, and on modularized propulsion systems whose underlying technology is not basically a well-controlled explosion. What if a depot re-fill flight or an engine delivery fails? It’s an insurable risk. Get the insurance payout and fund the substitute.

    The current style is a lot like piling some customized eggs into a customized basket, then hurling the basket and praying.

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