back to article Duff Russian Mars probe spotted flying in reverse

A veteran skywatcher has captured a video of the doomed Russian Martian space probe Phobos-Grunt that provides evidence of why ground control has only sporadically been able to contact it. "The images show that the Phobos-Grunt is moving backwards, with the solar panels deployed but not lightened by the Sun," French …


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  1. Christoph

    As Spike might say ...

    "I'm flying backwards for Christmas"

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      CPO Pertwee in charge?

      "left hand down a bit please" ... No, the other left hand!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So, let me get this strait. They spend millions if not billions building the thing, but they can't be arsed to put it right side up on the launch vehicule? this fail is so monumental, it should have it's own gravity well.

    1. Steve Knox

      Strait Up

      Menai definitely agree with you. Whoever installed the thing must have lost his bering. Perhaps if it wasn't tumbling en-dover-end when they communicated with it, they could have righted it. As it is, the whole affair is so messina wonder Medvedev wanted to find who was responsible and cook his bass.

      1. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Quiet wright Miss. ter-knocks

        Tittle seaze it awl.

  3. Local Group

    Merci M Legault

    "According to Legault, the probe shows no signs of tumbling."

    My conspiracy theory still lives!

  4. M Gale

    Stupid questions

    Are the Russians making prototype turbolasers along the lines of the US missile killers, are they blue enough, and how bright would the beam be after a few hundred miles of atmosphere?

  5. vincent himpe

    hey anatoly , you knowink if integer is signed or unsigned ?

    i thinking is unsigned ... ok youri , i will kode iit as unsigned.

    Not that the americans do any better. Remember the mars lander that became the mars burier... Speed was specced in kilometer and hour and the propulsion guys thought it was miles per hour .... oops. we're traveling 50% too fast. brake .... brake ..brake .. BRAKE ! BRAAAAAAAA - splat -

    1. 404


      At least the thing got there!


  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    shine a big laser at it


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      maybe they could ask the merkins to have the X-37B rock up alongside and angle its solar panel to reflect some sunlight onto it.

  7. David Webb

    So, the same people that are responsible for that Skyrim Dragon patch are responsible for this too? Good to know! I used to fly backwards... till I took an arrow in the knee.

  8. ravenviz Silver badge

    It's a trick

    So you guys are on some kind of a Star Trek?

  9. Long Fei


    They put the batteries in backwards.

  10. Paul RND*1000
    Thumb Up

    Oh those crazy science types!

    I love how he spends more text taking apart someone else's video than he does explaining what the hell is going on in his.

  11. FredScummer

    Earth to space junk, earth to space junk....

    I know that I didn't sit my doctorate in space engineering, but if the problem is that the electrical system isn't working because the panels aren't getting sunlight, just how difficult can it be for an earth-based laser to light up those panels as the machine whizzes overhead? Presumably they'd only have to get the thing operational for a short time in order to give commands for it to turn itself around?

    Damn silly design though if they didn't build in enough intelligence to make sure the thing would make sure it was the right way round.

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Go and get a Doctorate in Space Engineering.

  12. Johan Bastiaansen

    a bright star

    After all the money spend on building the thing, then launching it then some of their best and brightest tried to save it, spending more money. Now mr. Thierry Legault was the first one to come up with the idea that perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea to take a look at the bloody thing?

    Perhaps we should make him head of every space agency in the world since he obviously is the brightest star among brown dwarves.

  13. Turtle

    Looked at Thierry Legault's gallery...

    The advice to look at Thierry Legault's online gallery is quite good advice indeed: there are some extraordinary and striking images there. It's very, very impressive.

  14. Carl W


    Surely there are solar panels on both sides of those surfaces? Surely...

    1. 404


      I was sitting here pondering the same thing. Either a space limitation or a cost factor would be my best guess. Hopefully is was not a decision based on economics - would probably qualify for a black mark on somebody's record in good old Russia. oops.

      Often wondered why every available surface doesn't have solar cells, maximum potential and could be useful for a minor barrier against space trash - the small kind that could penetrate internals. Again probably a weight limitation. A photoelectric fabric perhaps? Rambling now.


    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      There would be solar cells on one side of the panels, and they would be oriented to the sun with a motorised mount. On the reverse side, you typically have radiator panels to get rid of excess heat. Typically the solar panels always generate the same amount of power; any you don't want is turned into heat in the panels and radiated to space; otherwise you find your 50V power bus at 100V...

    3. Ru

      Why double the weight?

      Given that pointing the wrong way is not (or shoudl not) be a common issue, the increased mass of what should really be completely useless equipment would be a massive waste of money.

      If this was a common occurrance, sure, it might be worth it. But why not fit a RTG to every probe instead? Why not have an emergency comms system with its own independant battery supply and positioning rockets? Why not send up two probes to do the same job, built by different teams, launched using different rockets, etc?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    sounds nice in theory. i have to actually synthesize the the damn compounds and get device data. while organics with decent conversion efficiency, good photochemical stability (remember, they must not just be stable but rad-hard for space applications where there´s no atmospheric attenuation of solar radiation = full blast UV with other spectral and high energy particle goodies thrown in, itching to rip useful organics to shreds) would be nice, i can see flexible organic panels with good performamce useable on the ground will probably happen during my career. space-worthy i sincerely doubt it any time soon. i may be wrong though...

  16. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Unless it's either in a geostationary orbit, or in a polar orbit 90deg to the sun I don't see why the panels aren't getting sunlight at least half the time. Regardless of what direction it's traveling in.

    We need a 'confused' icon.

    1. Graham Dawson Silver badge


      The ship is in orbit. It doesn't turn as it orbits in order to maintain the position of the panels. If it had been the right way around it would have had those panels facing towards the sun. As it stands, they're facing away from the sun and, since the ship doesn't turn, they aren't going to face the sun. Ever.

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        @Graham Dawson

        The ships I work on are in orbit. They don't turn while they are in orbit; always pointing in the same direction (the same as Thierry says for this bird). My ships have to rotate the panels to always point to the sun. If you don't rotate the panels, they only point at the sun for part of the time.

        1. Jonathan Richards 1

          Directions in Spaaaaace...

          Something in orbit around planet Earth does turn relative to the sun. In a pure inertial frame of reference, its path is a complicated epicyclic path *around the sun* (think Spirograph (tm)). If the orbiter has no rotational velocity, it will stay pointing at the same distant star. I'm guessing that in six months, maybe less, the Earth and Phobos-Grunt would have moved around far enough to illuminate the panels correctly. Trouble is, it ain't going to stay up there for six months.

  17. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Its a Ruskie plot, I tell ya'

    "its atmospheric reentry is currently scheduled for mid-January," a reference to reports that the failed Mars mission should rain hot chunks of itself onto terra firma on or around January 15."

    They're just cultivating a sense of complacency in us about having stuff fall on us from space.

    1. FredScummer

      Perhaps the ruskies have decided that they are going to take Iran's nuclear missile capability out, and this "failed satellite" is actually a delayed bomb, which when it falls on the nuclear facility in Iran they can say "oops" without actually admitting that they planned to take out Iran's nuclear capability.

      We can live in hope anyway.

    2. Local Group

      @ Ruskie Plot, I tell ya'

      P. Grunt clearly is going backwards in time to snag Wernher von Braun, Walter Dornberger, Arthur Rudolph, et alia out of the clutches of the Allies after WWII. So they can work for the soon-to-be Russian Federation. At this location since 1991, V. Putin, Prop.

  18. Zebo-the-Fat

    Verrry nice!

    Very impressive bit of video, done with a (Relatively) small telescope, I wonder why the people in charge of the project didn't do this weeks ago

    1. laird cummings

      "Official" telescope time is expensive, and generally booked years in advance. It may simply not have occured to the Russki officials to contact a talented amateur.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Solar panels would be expected to be oriented towards the sun for a majority of the mission duration. The probe would only manouver to point elsewhere for special occasions such as firing its main engine.

    Maybe it's still waiting on "burn done" signal from its engines before it turns back towards the sun..

    This orientation is kinda puzzling.. First that it isn't tumbling, so close to atmosphere, and so long presumably dead, while under the influence of the gravity of earth. Maybe the panels are acting as a sort of parachute, making it point into the extremely thin atmosphere, making this attitude stable? But then you'd expect to see it pointing in some other direction than panels away from sun, if it's at all possible to image it when its direction of travel isn't towards sun.

    For a direct transfer orbit to Mars, I would expect it would orient itself perpendicular to the sun, and fire engine when on the dark side of earth. It'd probably have a star tracker to keep attitude fixed relative to a distant star, so when it goes around earth it'd always appear as traveling with its side facing the sun.

    On the other hand, manned low earth orbit flights probably use earth horizon as attitude reference for orbital manouvers, and in this configuration you'd also be able to do a burn for mars, and if thr attitude was controlled and tuned precisely enough it'd maybe "last" a couple orbits at most after losing power..

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've siad it once, and I'll say it again. someone needs to come up an aircraft that can go up and capture space junk and bring it down for cash. The Reg should do it and call it "Vulture".

    You can hire Andy Griffith to do it, that was a TV show he had back in the 70's. Even had a space ship named the "vulture"

    1. Tom Chiverton 1 Silver badge

      That's the sort of mission that gave us the broken STS design, then the US chickened out and never actually did a less-than-one-orbit snatch and grab.


  21. JeffyPooh

    Anyone else notice the "237 km" ??

    Talk about *LOW* Earth Orbit (mere days from burning up).

    So, as it slowly descends into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, of course it's going to self-align with the center of drag (the big solar panels) being pulled behind the center of mass (the mass that provides the going-forward momentum).

    237 km is really really low altitude.

    This finding is interesting, but is probably expected and says nothing about cause and effect.

    1. Ru

      If you read the linked page,

      you'd find that the photographer already understood and mentioned that.

      To quote,

      "[this] corresponds to an orientation driven by aerodymanic forces: the heaviest parts (tanks) ahead and the parts subject to the highest atmospheric friction (the solar panels) backward"

  22. Alex Brett

    Is it not possible that due to lack of thrusters etc to maintain an orbital rate rotation such that it was facing the same direction from Earth's PoV it's just gone in to a mostly inertial attitude (i.e. 50% of the orbit it will appear to be facing the 'correct' way, 50% of the orbit it won't)?

  23. despairing citizen

    This Way Up

    New tech for russian space programme.

    Big Yellow and Black sticker saying "This way up", for when the space monkeys load it into the rocket

  24. kissingthecarpet

    I thought

    the name Phobos-Grunt was a joke nickname until I read this article, I have to admit

  25. fLaMePrOoF

    "According to Legault, the probe shows no signs of tumbling, his evidence being a video he took a day before the one he provides on his website, which shows Phobos-Grunt in a similar orientation."

    ????????????!!!!!!!! What complete utter bollocks, the satellite is CLEARLY 'tumbling' in that video, IS THE GUY BLIND?!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      no signs of tumbling

      It's clearly tumbling - but only one revolution per day

    2. Ru

      Ignorant troll is ignorant.

      Inevitable Internet Omniscience Syndrome strikes again.

      You don't understand ther terminology, you don't understand the video... but you're quite happy to dismiss the work of someone who is clearly an expert here as 'utter bollocks'. Good show.

  26. davnel

    Once more into the breach

    The reason for the failure is obvious. It's that crappy Dell laptop they used to run the machine, probably running Winders. Dell on-site service needs to get their butts up there and fix it. Oh, and reboot Windoze, while they're at it. They shoulda been running linux.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    You are doing it wrong.

    I just had to say it.


  28. TeeCee Gold badge

    Obligatory really.

    In Russia, space probe reverse into you!

  29. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. DayDragon

      Someone pointed out above that the reverse side of the panel is used for expelling heat however couldn't they have a small solar cell that would only power the rotating motor (with enough power to turn the panel towards the sun) thus activating the computer?

      Another question: if it's been sat in the cold dark regions of space for so long not receiving any heat will the electronic/computer components be any good now?

  30. Dave 32

    Lots of stuff

    One reason solar panels aren't made so that they can receive sunlight on both sides is that that would, essentially, double the cost (Solar cells are still relatively expensive, at least the radiation hardened, space qualified variety.). And, any time you double the number of parts, you increase the chance of a failure. Plus, even doubling the number of solar cells (via front/back installation) doesn't cover the case where the thing happens to be flying sideways.

    There's also a weight issue. It's VERY expensive to send mass into orbit, and even more so to send it to Mars (even using a Hohmann Transfer Orbit). Thus, spacecraft designers are paranoid about adding even the slightest amount of non-essential mass to a spacecraft, since that often means 100 times (or more!) fuel is required to boost that additional mass into orbit. And, it doesn't take too much before the size of even the largest launch vehicle is exceeded.

    Ok, so why don't they make the satellite a sphere and put solar cells all around it? That has been done with some of the smaller probes/satellites, but it still relatively cost inefficient, and has some geometry problems for larger probes/satellites (e.g., Spherical probes won't fit on the top of the rocket, under the fairing.).

    The best option is to usually install some type of sun sensor, with a motorized mount to rotate the panels (or the craft) so that the solar panels are facing the sun. That was obviously what was intended here, but something went horribly wrong. :-(

    Of course, it's not trivial to put an electric motor on a spacecraft. Motors tend to need lubrication (else they seize), and you can't just slap a bit of axle grease on them, since hydrocarbons tend to do VERY nasty things when subjected to the extreme environmental conditions in space (e.g., high/low temperature extremes, zero air pressure, zero gravity, ultraviolet light/x-ray/cosmic-ray exposure, etc.). There are things, such as some Graphites and some Teflon,which can be used, but even those have to be used with a bit of care.

    Of course, this wouldn't be the first time something has went wrong with a space probe. Don't forget the American Hubble Space Telescope that was near-sighted (Ok, so it suffered from spherical aberrations, due to the measurement system used when it was ground having been assembled backwards.). And, there were many, many others. :-(

    As for the chance of a rescue mission, that never really existed, even given the fact that the American Space Shuttle was used to retrieve/repair/return a satellite or two. One problem is that the Space Shuttles are no longer flying (They've all been retired to museums.). Another is that the Phobos-Grunt probe is flying VERY low, so low as to make orbital perturbations due to atmospheric drag a very real problem (and, trying to synchronize orbits between two spacecraft is hard enough, even when you don't have to worry about the orbits changing due to atmospheric drag). Plus, there's the very real concern that there are many thousands of kilograms of VERY energetic fuel on board the probe, and it's uncertain what the condition of the satellite is in (e.g., Is it leaking fuel? Are the valves damaged? Is the piping/tanks intact?). Would you want to fly up to a 8000 Kg bomb at 17,000 miles per hour, and hope that everything was in good shape?

    Despite the professionals desiring it to be believed that space travel is easy, it isn't. It's VERY, VERY, VERY difficult.


    P.S. I'll get my coat; it's the one with the OSCAR satellite in the pocket.

  31. John 62

    Impressive photography

    Photographie du Lego

    Playmobile re-enactment is called for.

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