A new probe to a Martian moon may win back respect for Russia’s unmanned space program.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
“Nobody knows what Phobos’ soil is going to be like,” Zakharov says. “It might be perfect beach sand. But we hope—and something is whispering to us—that it will be a combination of sandy soil and small rocks.” IKI scientists studied images from the NEAR probe, which NASA landed on the asteroid 433 Eros in 2001, and concluded that the soil on Phobos may be similar. The team also created a model of Phobos’ soil, based on samples of Earth’s moon, and found that it likely sticks together well enough to stay inside the claw during the transfer to the return container. “We hope that in the lack of gravity, this sticking effect will be even stronger,” says Zakharov.
The return rocket will sit atop the spacecraft, and will need to rise at 22 mph to escape Phobos’ gravity. To protect experiments remaining on the lander, springs will vault the rocket to a safe height, at which its engines will fire and begin maneuvers for the eventual trip to Earth.
The lander’s experiments will continue in-situ on Phobos’ surface for a year. To conserve power, mission control will turn these on and off in a precise sequence. The robotic arm will place more samples in a chamber that will heat it and analyze its spectrum. This analysis might determine the presence of easily vaporized substances, such as water.
In addition to its promised scientific harvest, Phobos-Grunt is rejuvenating old alliances between Russian scientists and their colleagues abroad. Such cooperation reached its finest hour in 1984, when the Soviet Union launched the Vega 1 and 2 probes to Venus. By releasing balloons into that planet’s atmosphere and a flyby of Halley’s Comet, Vega returned volumes of scientific data, forging worldwide scientific cooperation. The spacecraft carried science payloads produced in more than half a dozen countries, and the comet approach included a flotilla of probes from Japan and Europe.
“After this mission,” Linkin remembers, “there was an impression that we can achieve so much through cooperation.”
Unfortunately, the success was followed by one failed and one only marginally successful mission to Phobos, plus the fiasco of Mars-96, which deprived scientists around the world of data and research, and eroded their decade-long trust of the Russians. “There was an emotional aftermath from the Mars-96 failure,” Linkin says. “Everything always fails on your side,” his foreign colleagues complained to him.
But these scientists are connecting again. In December 2005, the French and the Russians started discussing cooperation on Phobos-Grunt. Before long, French instruments were on board.
Then, in 2006, the Russians announced that the Chinese would add a 243-pound spacecraft, Yinghuo-1, to Phobos-Grunt to study Mars’ atmosphere. This maxed out the capabilities of the planned Soyuz rocket and required a switch to a more powerful and expensive Zenit booster.