Mission Possible

A new probe to a Martian moon may win back respect for Russia’s unmanned space program.

Russian scientists have recently improved their probe by replacing the drill shown with a scoop device to collect soil in the weak gravity of Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons. (CNES)
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Imagine a world-class athlete who hasn’t practiced for several years, but suddenly gets a chance to compete at the Olympics. Or an opera singer walking on stage at La Scala without a rehearsal. These would be good metaphors for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission. (“Grunt,” pronounced “groont,” is Russian for “soil.”) Planned for launch in October 2009, the probe may become the first to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, and the first to bring a sample of its soil back to Earth, so scientists can try to determine whether Phobos was once an asteroid. And it will mark the revival of Russian planetary science after two decades of decline.

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Even during the years of the space race with the United States, when Soviet space budgets were hefty, the nation’s Mars ambitions frequently met with failure. Of the 20 Soviet or Russian missions aimed at the Red Planet, not one fully succeeded. Other countries have had their troubles too. Five of NASA’s 19 Mars missions have failed. Japan’s only attempt, launched in 1998, failed to achieve orbital insertion. In 2003, the European Space Agency’s sole effort has imaged the planet from orbit, but the lander vanished in the Martian atmosphere.

In late 1996, Russia made its last attempt to leave Earth orbit: Mars-96, a complex mission consisting of an orbiter, two landers, and two surface penetrators. Unlike the Soviet Union, which always launched planetary exploration spacecraft in pairs, Russia could afford only a single spacecraft. With funding always in doubt, many of the project’s participants worked for months without pay. Mars-96 finally reached the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

On November 16, 1996, Vasili Moroz, a leading scientist at the Russian Space Research Institute, or IKI, the Russian equivalent of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, watched the launch from mission control near Moscow. The blastoff of the Proton rocket seemed flawless. A mission commentator gave optimistic reports on the various stages of the climb to orbit. “As we learned later,” said Moroz, who died in June 2004, “the commentator was reading a previously prepared list of the orbital insertion sequence rather than reacting to real events. We thought everything was fine, and even had a little drink to celebrate…. Of course we shouldn’t have done that.” Shortly thereafter, Moroz dropped by a ballistics calculations room where an operator reported that a propulsion system failure had left the craft in a doomed orbit around Earth. It soon plunged into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

“The loss of Mars-96 was extremely difficult to survive,” says Vechaslav Linkin, another IKI veteran. “Imagine: busy, busy work and then suddenly it is all over. We started losing employees. Some found work abroad. I lost several very talented guys, the developers of the software for the Mars rover.”

But in the new millennium, fortunes started to change. Skyrocketing oil prices boosted Russia’s energy-focused economy. Eventually, money trickled down to the space institute. By 2007 its budget was fully funded, and the loss of talent was stanched. “We now get many young specialists,” says Lev Zelenyi, who has led IKI since 2002. “With the brain drain of the 1990s, we kind of lost a middle generation who could now transfer their experience to young specialists. It is almost like during the war. We have a kind of generation gap.”

With the worst behind them, Russian scientists young and old are poised to study Mars and Phobos in a single mission. Unlike sister moon Deimos, Phobos, named for the Greek god of fear, the mythical son of Ares (whom the Romans called Mars), circles the Red Planet in a relatively low orbit, and is therefore the easier of the two moons to access.

“It is not the most interesting asteroid in the solar system,” says Francis Rocard, manager of solar system programs at Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, France’s space agency. CNES has supplied a gas analysis package to study the molecular composition of Phobos’ soil. “But we will have access to it, and we will probably confirm that it is effectively a captured asteroid.” Rocard hopes the probe will find Martian material on Phobos; if so, it would have got there the way some of it reached Earth: by ejection of Martian materials during impacts of asteroids or big meteorites.

The spacecraft, which is being assembled near Moscow at NPO Lavochkin, successor to the Soviet Lavochkin Design Bureau, should reach Mars in late July or early August 2010. It will orbit the planet for almost nine months before landing on Phobos. There it will be subjected to power and communications blackouts, when Mars and Phobos block the sun and Earth.

“Phobos ends up in the shadow of Mars,” explains Aleksandr Zakharov, deputy director of IKI. “In the worst situations, this shadow lasts for almost an hour out of an eight-hour orbit.”

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