The U.S. military has removed links to Phobos-Grunt tracking data posted on a public website detailing orbital parameters of the ill-fated Russian Mars mission that Russia says reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean Jan. 15.
The website, Space Track, is managed by U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) at Offutt AFB, Neb., which routinely publishes tracking data on thousands of orbiting man-made objects catalogued by the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. As of 2010, the password-protected but unclassified site boasted more than 39,000 user accounts in more than 100 countries.
Space Track first published detailed orbital reentry predictions for Phobos-Grunt on Jan. 12, four days before the botched Mars sample-return mission, which had been stuck circling in low Earth orbit since its Nov. 8 launch, had “ceased to exist,” according to the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Per standard protocol, Stratcom updated these orbital forecasts every 24 hr., posting revised estimates of Phobos-Grunt’s expected time and place of reentry Jan. 13-14.
But the military deviated from normal practice when it removed links to the spacecraft’s reentry predictions while neglecting to publish final reentry data for the defunct probe Jan. 15. Instead, the site posted a vague statement asserting Phobos-Grunt “decayed within the forecast period of 16:59-17:47” GMT.
Stratcom officials were not immediately available for comment. But the forecast period in question is likely a reference to the Jan. 12-14 predictions posted to Space Track but later removed. Currently, the only Phobos-Grunt data available on the website is a statement at the top of the main orbital-reentry page that reads, “Information regarding the Phobos-Grunt (SCC# 37872) is being accomplished in a different format. This format is different from standard entries posted to Space Track.”
As of Jan. 16, Russian news agencies were reporting that Phobos-Grunt reentered Earth’s orbit over the Pacific Ocean 1,250 km (780 mi.) west of Wellington Island off Chile, though details of the spacecraft’s reentry remain unknown.
In the meantime, while Space Track continues to post U.S. military reentry predictions for other man-made objects orbiting in space, users find the absence of Phobos-Grunt data puzzling.
“There are links to other recent reentries from the past 30 days, six or seven objects, including one that is slated to come down in the next day or so,” says Brian Weeden, an orbital analyst and space situational awareness expert with the Washington-based Safer World Foundation.
Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer who directed the Joint Space Operations Center’s orbital analyst training program, has no idea what would motivate the U.S. military to break with standard protocol for Phobos-Grunt. But he says the unusual steps taken by the military raise questions about the reliability of its data with regard to high-profile or important events such as Phobos-Grunt.
“This also appears to run counter to the expressed policy of the U.S. government to improve its data-sharing efforts on space situational awareness, and undermines efforts by other U.S. government agencies such as NASA and the State Department to communicate with the public and other countries on reentries,” Weeden says.
Stratcom’s actions come amid fresh allegations from Russia that the U.S. is responsible for Phobos-Grunt’s demise. Russian state news agencies reported Jan. 17 that a government-appointed commission is investigating the cause of the mishap, an inquiry that will include ground tests in which a Phobos-Grunt mock-up is exposed to radiation equal to that produced by U.S. radar.
The investigation comes on the heels of remarks reported by Russian state news agencies last week in which Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin suggested Phobos-Grunt fell victim to foreign sabotage.
Photo credit: Roscosmos