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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“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.

Others are piggybacking too. Perhaps the most unusual passenger on Phobos-Grunt comes from the U.S.-based Planetary Society. Its Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, or LIFE, will send 10 types of microorganisms and a natural soil colony of microbes on the three-year round trip. “This would be the first time live organisms take an interplanetary flight”—on a controlled experiment, at least—says Louis Friedman, the society’s executive director. The results may fuel the debate about whether meteorite-riding organisms can spread life throughout the solar system.

Some fear that the eight-ton Phobos-Grunt—expected to carry up to 20 experiments—has ballooned into a Noah’s Ark of science. Friedman advises having a little patience with the Russians’ approach. “We might find it strange,” he says, “but their philosophy is, if the new task is not affecting the main goal of the mission, it can be added. They take all these changes much more easily than we do. In the ’80s they were planning to drop balloons in the atmosphere of Venus. Then they decided to take the same spacecraft to Halley’s Comet almost at the last minute, and they did it successfully.”

Others are less certain. “The Phobos-Grunt mission is very ambitious,” says CNES’s Rocard, “and I think the Russians are not very confident in their own technology. They are not sure they could actually bring back the samples. That is why they want some scientific return by remote-sensing Mars, or in-situ experiments on Phobos.” He speculates that a hidden rationale for Phobos-Grunt’s broad nature is winning support within the Russian scientific establishment. “This is an internal problem in Russia. If they make too narrow a selection [of experiments], there will always be scientists who are not happy. They would keep criticizing the mission. My feeling is 20 instruments are too much. In the U.S. they put six instruments [on a typical planetary probe].”

A major milestone comes at the beginning of next year, when IKI is scheduled to deliver the science instruments for installation on the spacecraft.

“We have a good chance that Phobos-Grunt will fly,” says Zelenyi of the 2009 launch date. He adds that Phobos-Grunt could still go to Mars with its full payload in 2011. That year, the planet’s orbit won’t synch with Earth’s the way it will in 2009, so the mission would require the more powerful Zenit. “It would not be a tragedy,” he says.

Successful or not, Phobos-Grunt will pave the way for a caravan of Russian probes to Mars and other planets, Russian space officials insist. But a success would boost the nation’s planetary science program and its standing in the world. Russian scientists know that very well. They took this gamble before.

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