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by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Nov 17, 2011
The loss of Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission has shocked the spaceflight community. There's been plenty of attention placed on this high-profile mission, but relatively little coverage of its piggyback payload, Yinghuo-1. This small satellite was set to become China's first Mars mission. The loss of Phobos-Grunt ended the mission of Yinghuo at the same time.
China's state media were fairly quick and frank to declare Yinghuo lost alongside Phobos-Grunt. In fact, they seemed to be far more direct in reporting the loss of the two spacecraft than Russia's own officials. Having stated this, there was no more reportage on Yinghuo-1.
This is understandable for three main reasons. There was little more that could be said about the fate of the probe, and little incentive to over-report on bad news. Also, China's aerospace reporters were preoccupied with another major story.
As Yinghuo was launched, China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory and Shenzhou 8 spacecraft were successfully operating in orbit. These twin missions have been the real stars of China's recent space activities, and they truly deserve the limelight.
But let's return to Yinghuo-1, which remains stored inside a truss structure beneath Phobos-Grunt. The two spacecraft will probably make an uncontrolled re-entry before the end of the year.
Yinghuo never even got a chance to unfurl its solar panels or perform any real operations in space. It would be tempting to declare this mission a total failure, but this is both unfair and untrue.
Yinhuo-1 was a fairly low-cost and low-key way for China to begin its planetary exploration program. If the program is treated as an exercise in starting such a program, it should be considered successful. Chinese engineers were able to design and assemble a flight-ready spacecraft.
They forged international partnerships for acquiring instrumentation. They developed procedures for controlling the spacecraft and analyzing its data. They probably uncovered technical and procedural gremlins along the way, and learned to defeat them.
Like the tip of an iceberg, the small Yinhuo spacecraft is just one part of a larger program, with infrastructure, personnel, and knowledge. The rest of this program is on the ground, and it remains intact.
China has openly stated that it plans to launch its own independent Mars missions in the future. The experience gained with Yinhuo-1 will help it to plan those missions, and probably improve their chances of success.
Let's not forget that Mars remains a difficult target. Missions to the red planet almost seem jinxed, with a high rate of failure.
In recent years, we have witnessed high-profile failures such as NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, which both failed on arrival.
Britain's Beagle 2 lander and Japan's Nozomi orbiter both failed. China had to expect a Mars mission failure at some point. It's probably better to lose a small probe than a larger one.
There's another factor to remember. Although Yinghuo-1 never made it to Mars, we can't say that it wasn't a potentially successful mission. If Phobos-Grunt had performed successfully after reaching Mars, Yinghuo could have been deployed into orbit.
No, there's no chance of releasing Yinghuo into Earth orbit for an alternative mission. It's lost. But the experience gained from developing this mission made it worthwhile.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
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