The First Space Archeologist
2014-07-11 | Text: Alexey Kirillov | Photo ©: forplayday / fotolia.com; NASA/JPL/University of Arizona; NTsOMZ; archive of Vitaliy Egorov. | 4376

There’s a certain remarkable parable. A major shoe company sends a salesman for its products to Africa. A week later the salesman comes back and says: “There’s no hope whatsoever. They all walk around barefoot all the time.” Some time passes and the company decides to try again. They send another salesman. “It’s stupendous!” he wrote a little while later in a letter. “Send everything you’ve got – the market’s huge! They all walk around barefoot!”

The moral is simple. If you want to succeed the ability to see possibilities and underappreciated ideas is sometimes more important than a famous name, vast resources, or past services. The man we will be talking to is a good illustration of this rule. He went from a little-known freelance journalist to a solver of problems that you were too much for NASA and Roskosmos. His name is Vitaliy Egorov.


- Vitaliy, to start off, give me a few words about yourself. What did you begin with?

I grew up during the Soviet space craze and knew very well what I needed to say when people asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But I didn’t take to mathematics and physics, so things didn’t work out with space back then. At sixteen I got interested in history and wanted to become an archeologist, but while I was studying history at college I lost interest in archeology. On the other hand, what I learned enabled me to handle almost any type of information – I understood that more than anything else I was good at journalism. In the end that’s where I ended up.

It turned out that, as a student of the humanities, I could talk about complicated technical things in a simple and interesting way. Two years ago I started to write about what I have loved since childhood – space.  I registered on Habrahabr [the largest IT society in Eastern Europe – editor’s note] and within three months became the top-rated author. It became clear that I wasn’t the only person interested in space.

- The magazine Popular Mechanics included you in its list of breakthroughs of 2013 for ‘solving a problem that NASA could not handle.’ What problem was it, and how was it solved?

I found out that we still don’t know the current locations of many probes that were sent to the Red Planet in the twentieth century.  One of them was the pride of Soviet cosmonautics, the space probe Mars 3, famous for making the first soft landing of a descent module on Mars by any country, and to this day the only one in Soviet-Russian cosmonautics. Transmission of data from Mars 3 began 1.5 minutes after its landing on the surface of Mars, but for some unknown reason stopped 14.5 seconds later. During the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flight NASA repeatedly attempted to find the Mars 3 landing site, but they did photographic surveys form orbit and didn’t try to look for the lander on the surface.

This seemed like an interesting problem, and I began searching for the probe. I got some photographs of Mars taken by an American satellite at a definition of 25-30 centimeters per pixel. They were of the approximate landing site of the Mars rover, and I proposed to the members of my group on the social networking site Vkontakte to take part.  About 20 people responded. I divided the photographs into 25 parts, and we began the search.  We needed to find a 1.5 x 1.5-meter object in an area of 6 x 12 kilometers. It was a difficult enough task – NASA later calculated that the photographs would fill up 2500 computer screens.


A photograph of the Martian surface where the Soviet unmanned Mars probe Mars 3 landed (photograph taken by the HiRISE camera in 2007). A territory of six by twenty kilometers had to be searched to find Mars 3, with each photographic pixel covering 25-30 centimeters. According to NASA’s calculations, the photograph contains 1.8 billion pixels of information, amounting to 2500 standard computer screens.

I’ll tell you briefly about the landing procedure for Mars 3, since it will be important later. The landing module was equipped with a brake shield 3.2 meters in diameter and a parachute pack. The brake shield executed aerodynamic braking of the craft after it entered Mars’ atmosphere. Later, when the parachute opened, the shield was discarded. The parachute leads were attached to the retrorockets, which were, in turn, directly connected to the module by means of a cable. At a height of 20-30 meters the retrorocket was switched on. At this time the parachute was jettisoned to the side by another rocket so that its canopy did not cover the Mars probe. Right before contacting the surface itself the craft dropped, and the container with the retrorockets fell nearby.


А mock-up of Mars 3 in Memorial Museum of Space Exploration at the VDNKh.

So we got down to searching. As we later found out, someone else had discovered the parachute before us, but then our group was the first to find the brake shield. Unfortunately, we never were able to find the module itself, though we spent a load of time trying. But there remained the question of what final answer I was going to give my followers on VKontakte: it is possible to find the Mars rover, or is it completely impossible?  I studied the photographs of Mars another entire month, now on my own. In the course of my research I contacted  Philip Stooke, who at one time had searched for Lunokhod 2 using pictures of the Moon. He gave me an important hint that turned out to be crucial – it’s important to know the flight path of the landing module. He said, “The module was going towards the East,” and that allowed me to chop off fifty percent of the unnecessary space and concentrate my search in the optimal direction.

I met New Year’s 2013 sitting at my computer. While people were out having fun, noisemakers went off, and my neighbors dug into bowls of Olivier salad, I was examining Mars. Then, at 4 a.m. on January 1st I found the Soviet unmanned probe Mars 3 on the surface of the Red Planet. The real probe on the real neighboring planet. Back then I didn’t understand just how much this discovery would change my life. And then I understood something else – before yelling “I found it!” I needed to prove that I had found it. That’s how I spent the first weeks of 2013.

- And how did you prove it?

Here I also had help. For example, Philip Stooke took a look at my find, agreed that it was very interesting, and suggested that I single out a few objects nearby that were similar to the landing module in shape and form. I needed to do that so I could show them that my find was the most convincing.

Then I got in touch with professor of planetary geology Aleksandr Bazilyevsky – he was mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Lunokhod 2, and I thought that Mars would also be of interest to him. At first he was very skeptical, but then he contacted NASA and asked them to take another batch of photographs of the area. Bazilyevski said to me then: “Explain what you see.” I took a photograph of the surface and drew a schematic of what I thought to be there: this cross-shaped “rock” here is Mars 3; this is the parachute, this is the retrorocket with cable, and this is the shield. It’s important that right away I said: “You can check me using these criteria.” That is to say, my theory could have been refuted – any scientific theory must be refutable, i.e. have within itself some criteria that we can check and then say whether it’s correct or not. The professor considered my arguments and contacted the Americans.


Parts of the landing module of Mars 3, found by Vitaliy in a photograph. The landing module of Mars 3. Retrorockets and the lower end of the toroidal compartment, the brake cone, the descent parachute.

Meanwhile I continued my study of the Martian surface. It was very important that the cable of the retrorocket was a certain length, and next to our module I made out something that could fit the description. It was possible to fairly clearly make out the length of that object. By counting the pixels I it came out to be 4.8 meters. By using this criterion I would be able to finally determine if that was what we were looking for. But that was only possible if I could get into the archives of NPO Lavochkin, where they constructed Mars 3. The real length of the cable could be gleaned from the designs. With Bazilevsky’s help I found a person who agreed to accomplish this feat. That person was Vladimir Molodtsov – one of the engineers at Lavochkin.

It turned out that the cable measured 4.52 meters – so the difference was only by 28 centimeters –within the margin of error of one pixel! When I saw that, I jumped for joy and wrote to NASA right away.  They replied: “Yes, we just did another photo survey of your area. There definitely is something interesting there.” Bazilevsky requested that they prepare a publication announcing this by April 12, Space Exploration Day, and they cooperated.

- So your actions put in place a series of events that changed the work of a satellite?

Yes, and it was so cool – NASA changed the work of a satellite to check my suggestion. Literally a month later my name was in world news. Admittedly, in half the press releases NASA didn’t get my name right – instead of Egorov I was Erogov. 

- What did you do after that?

I figured out one very important thing: despite the horrible state of the Russian space program, people want to see something good in space, and not how everything crashes and money disappears.

On Habrahabr I mainly wrote about the Mars rover NASA Curiosity, but gradually came to think that I need to do coverage of our Russian space program as well. The press policy of Roskosmos was far from the traditions of NASA, and that was the main problem. There is a turn to the better, but for now it’s going very, very slowly. Brief and boring press releases, incomprehensible charts, blurry photographs, so many grandiose promises about the future conquest of space and steadfast ignorance of the Internet’s existence. The only deviation from this position I saw was in an interview with Viktor Khartov, the general director of Lavochkin, for the news portal Lenta.ru, in which he admitted that he was distressed by what people were saying on the internet about Phobos-Grunt and the Russian space program in general. In large part it was this interview that drove me to work with our space program. I wrote my first article, “Solar Eclipses from a Distance of 36,000 Kilometers, or Why We Know More about Their Chunk of Our Outer Space than Our Own.” In it I talked about the work of the single Russian spacecraft, Elektro-L, whose data is almost completely available to the public on the website of the Research Center for Earth Operative Monitoring (NTsOMZ). In the “best” traditions of Roskosmos the work of NTsOMZ is not well advertised, which is why only a few people know about the database of photographs.  After my article came out people rushed to the photographs, and the serve nearly crashed because of it. In the course of a day there were nearly 50,000  views. They were shocked when they saw the traffic figures. They calculated why this happened, and on VKontakte they wrote me and said: “Come pay us a visit.” That’s how I made a new acquaintance. The director of this center let it slip that he doesn’t have big opportunities, and he can’t put aside money for educating the public, but on a personal level he was willing to help me with my work as much as he could. And Elektro-L was my next step.

Devastatingly beautiful from space and devastating on Earth. In November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest of tropical cyclones, was catastrophic for the Philippines and several neighboring countries. Photograph taken by the Russian satellite Elektro-L.

I discovered that, according to the table of solar eclipses, the next solar eclipse – which took place on May 10, 2013 – falls partially within the line of sight of Elektro-L. The satellite takes pictures once every half hour, although it can take pictures twice as often. I wrote the director of NTsOMZ with this question: could they turn on the rapid photo-taking regime to take better pictures of the solar eclipse, so that then they could make an animation of it? It turned out that the satellite had been working for two years, and in that time no one had even thought of trying to turn on the rapid photo-taking regime. Can you imagine? “If it’s working, don’t touch it” – that’s the most important principle in our country.

Nevertheless, right in front of me they called Roskosmos Mission Control. There they said: “Yeah, sure – no one needs that, and no one will do it.” Today the space program has insane bureaucracy – they still use old rules written during the Cold War. This leads to people being, even on an emotional level, afraid of starting anything new, and everything moves slowly.  It turned out that NTsOMZ only receives the photographs and can’t order any changes. In reality the satellite is under the control of Roskosmos and the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring. It was then I decided to write the leadership of these organizations. I had to think: “Am I the only person who’s going to write? Now there are lots of ways to get signatures online and make a collective appeal.” I published a letter, “Let’s Make Roskosmos Kinder”, on VKontakte and on Habrahabr. Under it we gathered over 2,000 signatures. At first there was no response, and I got in touch with journalists and told them about the situation. People from RIA Novosti called the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring and said: “Bloggers are asking you to shift the satellite. Will you help them?” The first reaction was this: “No! The program is scheduled two months in advance, and in ten days no one will do that.” Meanwhile on the internet there was a real surge. Later they told me that there were written requests to act on our appeal from MGU, from NPO Lavochkin. In general, we got to Roskosmos.

Somewhere around three days before the event it became clear that they had tried to switch the satellite to the accelerated regime – folders began appearing more often at the archive where the photographs are stored. Then I got an email saying that the request had been approved, and the shooting of the eclipse would take place as we had desired. Beginning May 9 – the night before the eclipse – thanks to our public appeal to the Planeta research center, which develops the photographs, there was an entire separate scientific team at work. Everyone tried and it turned out well – they made very impressive animations of how the lunar shadow moved across the surface of the Earth. 


The photograph of the solar eclipse taken by Elektro-L satellite (November, 3, 2013).

Then I wrote a thank-you article, and readers wrote their own thank-you’s in the comments section. I placed a separate thank-you article on the site of Roskosmos. A little while later their press service called me: “Hello, you thanked us for the work of Elektro-L.” I answer: “Yes, I did.” There was a long pause, and then I heard: “You’re welcome!” Then they asked: “What else will you think up?” I said that I still didn’t know, but if I think of something, they’ll definitely hear about me.

- And did they?

I was flirting with the idea of making an Android/iPhone application that would enable a user to search for another of our space probes – Mars 6. I wanted to get Roskosmos interested in it, proposing that the system would be on their servers. Society would make the instrument, Roskosmos would help, and we would all look for the remains of space power together. This project is now in full swing, only we did it without using a smartphone application. 

I already have my next thought: in 2017 Russia and Europe will launch the Mars craft ExoMars. I proposed getting people together with a request to Roskosmos and the Russian Academy of Sciences that they put a microphone on this Mars rover. In theory Mars should be very quiet, boring, and uninteresting, but there’s wind there, and it has to make noise. People want to hear that. There’s never been a single microphone of any sort on Mars, by the way. The modus operandi will be the same – prepare a letter and gather signatures.

That’s far from everything that’s in my plans. But I don’t want to talk about my more strategic plans – it’s too early.

The VKonakte group I founded, which is dedicated to Elektro-L, has gotten very positive feedback. In the one year it has existed it has gotten the same number of members as Roskosmos’ unofficial group, which has existed for more than two years.

- Tell me – what does a person feel after he’s ‘steered’ two satellites?

Fantastic, of course. But it was very funny too, because then I was just your average guy who had nothing at all to do with space exploration. And, despite this, I managed to influence the work schedule of behemoths like NASA and Roskosmos, control American and Russian satellites, and within a space of only two or three months at that.

- Do you work anywhere officially now, or are you still working freelance?

When I wrote about Elektro-L, I struck up a friendship with the guys who developed it. They told Mikhail Kokorich about me – he’s the founder of Russia’s first private aerospace company, Dauria Aerospace. They organized a meeting. I told him how I saw our work, what I can do, what I like. As it turned out, Dauria needed all of this, and they invited me to work with them.

Kokorich also supports my work educating the public. I don’t think in the current situation he was going on the assumption that if we write something interesting about space, then in ten years new, highly-motivated employees will join the company. Most likely there’s no direct business interest here.  The shift happens on a personal level – a few people understand that we need it, which is why they finance it. The nation, the people, the government – they all need it. 

Fortunately, today there are private organizations that realize the importance of such an approach.  For example, for a certain time I worked at Mars-Tefo, and in general I continue to cooperate with them. So the entire structure is based on the idea of educating the public – they think that’s it’s needed, and so they do it. There’s a company called Vito Technologies that also supports my initiatives.

For the first time since studying at university I understand that not only does all of my work have some meaning, but it also has some specific use. Not possessing any engineering skills or mathematical ability, I found one of the few places in space where the abilities of a person of the arts like me can be of use.

- Is the government doing anything now to educate the public about space exploration?

A year ago I was watching an online transmission of a press conference. Smart people in the space industry had gathered to discuss how to get the younger generation interested in space. I looked at this spectacle and I wanted to go there so I could kick the speaker’s rostrum and tell them what they need to do. They don’t understand things at all. In the Soviet Union there was a propaganda machine at work on that. The government did a competent job of cooking up interest in the national space boom, built up some excitement in this area. Now there’s absolutely nothing like that.

NASA, by the way, also went through this. I don’t know why, but in the 1990s they just gave up on educating the public. Maybe they were going through tough times due to the end of the Space Race, maybe there were other reasons… On top of all this, in the late ‘90s three Mars missions in a row failed. But within a decade they transformed the situation. I spoke with Russian scientists who are now working on the Curiosity mission, and they say that NASA spends about 5% of the cost of every space program on PR. Now let’s do some math: the funding of the satellite that took photographs of Mars 3 comes out to 750 million dollars, and for the Mars rover Curiosity – 2.5 billion! NASA spends money just so it can shoot an attractive clip that has no scientific value whatsoever, and then put it on YouTube – just so people can see it. That is promotion which in the end supports the entire industry. 

What NASA does – reporting to the taxpayers on what it does – is completely absent in Russia. We have one interest – one of personnel, getting young people interested in working in space.  Many directors of businesses associated with space are sounding the alarm. But in the Roskosmos leadership no one understands that you need to do something specifically for this, and that this requires separate financing. Yes, they made Roskosmos TV, but I don’t think that’s a significant investment. Once they put out videos of the Baikonur ground squirrel. A ground squirrel made a burrow between the rails along which the launch platform transports the rockets. They set up a videocamera to film the squirrel. A few years ago this squirrel was huge on the internet, and got more than a million views on YouTube.  Often I joke – joke sadly – that the Baikonur ground squirrel did more than the entire press service of Roskosmos.


Public education about space in the Soviet Union was set up very well. Illustrated:  Yuriy Gagarin with pioneers from the camp Artek.

- What, in your opinion, needs to be done to revive the nation’s interest in space?

We need to constantly talk to society and, what’s important, talk to them in language they can understand. Recently I talked with an 18-year old, and he said: “I want humanity to make a technological breakthrough that it lets us fly to the stars, and that’s why I’m studying physics. I don’t want to make rockets that are already obsolete.” And that’s great! We need to show what “space work” can do, so people go into it so they can explore the universe, and not so they can get a physicist’s salary. Mars 3 and Elektro-L prove that everyone can do his part. Even if it’s a small one – if you just “like” something on a social networking site, or put your signature in a petition to Roskosmos, that will still be something. The internet gives us the opportunity to touch space. It’s commonly believed that one person can’t make a difference, but that’s not true. Anyone could do a lot, can change a lot, if he’s interested enough, if he wants it strongly and will do a lot.

The 2000s are over and the 2010s have begun, and we still haven’t seen a space renaissance in our country. The reason is obvious: the space program isn’t supported by the general population, which is why the government is ready to spend so many billions on popular sporting events. The “bread and circuses” principle works, as it always has.

But there’s still the desire for the exploration of space. That’s why I’m saying: “Let’s making space into a spectacle!” The Soviet Union did an excellent job of it. NASA’s doing a good job now. What’s keeping us from doing it?  The country has money, it has specialists, it has the industry… then let’s fly! But there’s no public support, no interest, and so there are no big political dividends to be had. Someone might want me to name the guilty parties in this situation, but I’ll say that if our – society’s, the nation’s, the electorate’s, call it whatever you want – if our interest is visible, then space will be ours, no matter what the president’s name is and who the ruling party is.

Some might object: “Space and science are much harder to understand than sports.” “Everyone can take part in sports, but space is for the few.” “To understand modern science, you need to be a scientist, or at least remember the entire school curriculum extremely well…”

My answer is: “You’re mistaken!” Exploration of space can be made understandable for practically everyone. Everyone can do what they can to help space exploration – I’m proof of that. I’m trying to show Roskosmos and Russian science how they need to talk about their work, how to work with society so that their work is comprehensible and approved by the people – and it’s the people, after all, that they’re working for. And so here are my two mottoes that I go by: “Space is cool” and “Space is closer than you think.”

- These are the mottos you use when working with the public. Do you have an internal motto?

Antoine de Saint-Exupе́ry wrote an amazing book called The Wisdom of the Sands. There is an important thought – the author speaks through the character of an artistic person, and it boils down to this: “If I need to cross the ocean, I won’t plane planks for the ship, I won’t forge nails and make cloth for the sails – I’ll tell people about the sea’s endlessness, about its attraction and mystery. People will want to cross the ocean, and then to make the ship the blacksmiths will forge nails, the carpenters will plane the planks, the weavers will prepare the sails. Together we will make this ship and cross this ocean.”

I’m also telling people about the beauty and infinity of the sea. I want space to be explored further. But the people at Roskosmos are afraid of a new Phobos-Grunt – they’re afraid of making another mistake and of the reaction that would cause. That’s one of the reasons everything moves slowly. For that reason I want to do everything so that public sentiment does the opposite, and moves Roskomos forward. It’s a strategic goal, but one that’s fairly close. I’m not saying that we will have the entire country rise up and say: “We don’t need the Olympics – give us Mars.” I can’t do that, and I don’t want to, either. But in some sense I do want to prod them on, support them, show them, buck them up – that is something I can do, and I’m doing it. 


A small, almost unnoticeable white dot in the night sky– that is how our planet Earth looks from Mars. The photo was taken by the Mars rover Curiosity.

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