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Russian lunar and Mars missions face delays

Posted: April 25, 2009

The planned revival by Russia of its once mighty lunar and planetary robotic exploration program is beginning to falter due to Russian budget and spacecraft problems.

The difficulties are threatening to delay Russia's first mission to the Moon in 33 years. A Russian roundtrip mission to the Martian moon Phobos is also in trouble.

Russian lunar orbiter with penetrators and small soft lander station is shown in launch configuration. The flight is the former USSR's first lunar mission in 33 years, but is running into development trouble. Credit: IKI
The former Soviet Union, which launched dozens of successful deep-space probes in the 1960s-1980s, has not flown a fully successful planetary mission of any kind since the 1984 Vega 2 Halley's Comet/Venus mission. And it has launched no successful missions to the Moon or Mars in 33 years.

In an effort to revive the Russian lunar program, the unique Russian "Lunar Glob" orbiter is to fire instrumented Russian penetrators into the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 landing sites explored by U.S. astronauts nearly 40 years ago.

The Russian mission, equipped with several surface penetrators and perhaps a small soft lander, is set for launch in 2012.

But that plan is going to be reviewed extensively in May and June by the Russian government and its contractor Lavochkin.

Lunar Glob's stationary lander would be dropped into a south polar crater to obtain multispectral data in a search for signs of lunar water ice, while seismometers on the penetrators would help determine whether the Moon has a molten core. The molten core issue is important to determining how the moon was formed.

The Russian flight is to follow up on the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission set for launch June 2 on an Atlas 5 and carrying its own lunar impactor called the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

The U.S. impactor will be mounted on the Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage. Once the Centaur powers LRO toward the Moon, the U.S. impactor will also be separated to eventually fly in trail of the Centaur.

The plan is for the Centaur to impact the Moon at a south polar site shading potential water ice molecules. They hopefully would be blasted into space where they would be sensed by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that would fly through the Centaur's impact plume before it too hits the Moon. All of this will also be watched by sensors on LRO.

The Russian mission would also build on the Japanese SELENE, Chinese Chang'e 1 and Indian Chandrayaan 1 orbiters currently operating at the Moon.

Two artist concepts of the Russian mission, as currently configured, show the orbiter in its launch configuration equipped with a top-mounted ball-shaped soft lander. Note that the lander sphere has its own retro propulsion system.

Mounted around the sides of the orbiter are eight penetrators, four pointed up and four more pointed down with rocket acceleration systems.

The second drawing shows how the orbiter would appear midway through its mission, firing its first four penetrators to the Moon below.

The remaining four up-pointed penetrators have yet to be fired, but the ball-shaped lander and its retro system are missing, having been separated for landing before the orbiter fired it own engines to enter lunar orbit.

This artist's concept shows Russian seismometer-equipped lunar penetrators being fired toward the Moon, including the Apollo 11 and 12 landing sites. Four other penetrators (pointed up) are yet to be deployed. Note small soft lander is missing from atop spacecraft compared with the illustration above, indicating the soft lander has also been separated in this graphic. Credit: IKI
The exact configuration of the Lunar Glob mission will be revamped beginning in May, says Alexander Basilevsky, director of the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology at the Vernadsky Institute in Moscow.

The Russian lunar and planetary mission situation was addressed by both U.S. and Russian scientists at the recent Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

Basilevsky and other top Russian lunar and planetary scientists in Houston and Moscow told Spaceflight Now they hoped to stick to the planned 2012 launch date in spite of changes underway to the penetrator and small lander configuration.

That hopeful approach is not supported by details emerging from Russia, according to Anatoly Zak, a Russian space expert who manages the authoritative Zak believes the lunar mission is in for a delay, something Basilevsky and other top Russian planetary managers are not ready to concede.

"The mission is scheduled for 2012 and not later," says Erik Galimov, who heads the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry an Analytical Chemistry, one of Russia's preeminent research organizations. "If we want to change something we need to do it by May or June," he says.

The views of Galimov and Basilevsky carry weight because they are two of Russia's foremost lunar and planetary researchers with high credibility among their international colleagues.

If they say they are going to try and keep the mission on schedule, fellow researchers in the U.S. and India tell Spaceflight Now they are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt even if the science payload is modified in May and June.

A delay of the lunar penetrators flight could also, however, have a domino effect on India's offer to launch a small Russian lunar rover in a lunar cooperative mission as early as 2012-2013.

That rover flight has been pictured by Russia as a follow-on to the penetrator mission.

Planning for the rover could theoretically be moved ahead of the penetrator flight, however, if Russia gets a free launch from India in exchange for scientific and other cooperation with India.

The Lunar Glob mission instrument configuration will be a Lavochkin and science team decision, while a cooperative mission decision, involving a lunar rover and Indian launch, will be made at the highest level in the Kremlin.

Galimov said the options involve removing either the soft lander or reducing the penetrator count to a different mix than that shown in the concept drawings.

The Russian Lunar Glob penetrators would be equipped with seismometers to detect moonquakes.

The instruments are being designed to broaden data on moonquakes to prove or disprove theories on how the Moon was formed and whether it has a molten core.

Many U.S. scientists favor a theory that early in its history while still molten, the Earth collided with a planetoid sized body that ripped material away from Earth that later collapsed into what became the Moon.

Some top Russians including Galimov believe that model does not fit other theories that the Moon had already been largely formed and was captured by Earth, not blasted out of it.

The Apollo 11 and 12 sites have been chosen as target areas because crews on these and all other Apollo landings deployed seismometers to detect moonquakes to answer the same questions posed by the Russians.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands beside first seismometer deployed on the Moon in this picture taken by Neil Armstrong nearly 40 years ago on July 20, 1969. Lunar Module Eagle and the U.S. flag are in background. Russians are planning to fire seismometer-equipped penetrators into the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 landing sites to expand on Apollo seismometer data. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 11 solar array powered seismometer detected moonquakes for only three weeks before failing. The Apollo 12 seismometer, however, was nuclear powered and lasted until 1977 as did similar seismometers on Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17.

About 30 natural moonquakes were recorded by the Apollo seismometers between 1969-1977, all quite shallow and many strong enough to move furniture (relative to typical earthquakes) had there been any furniture on the Moon. Most of these were caused by large landslides in crater walls, geologists believe.

Other seismometer data was obtained deliberately by the impact of Apollo Saturn S-4B upper stages or Lunar Module ascent stages crashed into the Moon to generate data for the seismometers. As one scientist said at the time, "they made the Moon ring like a bell" but still did not answer the molten core question.

The Apollo 14 site has also been considered by the Russians as a target area. It was Apollo 12 seismometer data that renewed interest in keeping the Apollo 14 landing site at Fra Mauro, after Apollo 13 failed to land at that planned site.

The Russian sensors would help initiate the new Lunar Robotic Network that Russia, the U.S., European Space Agency and several other countries signed an agreement to gradually build during the 2008 LPSC meeting in Houston.

The objective is to gradually build an international network on the Moon of long-lived seismic, heat flow and other instrumentation.

The lunar mission is not alone in its development difficulties. So is an even more complex mission that would be the first robotic roundtrip between Earth and the vicinity of Mars.

Spacecraft development problems will likely delay that flight, which was to have been launched late this year to land on the Martian moon Phobos and return to Earth samples of the moon.

This graphic depicts the Russian Phobos lander and sample return spacecraft. Actual spacecraft is about 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The mission had been planned for launch in October but will be slipped to 2011-2012. Credit: Lavochkin/CNES
A Russian announcement on the delay of the Phobos mission is imminent, says Zak, who first reported it on his Web site and then in an article for the magazine IEEE Spectrum. The launch delay for that flight will be from October of this year to the next Mars launch window in late 2011 or early 2012, he says.

"All this is going to end up in a scandal," Roald Sagdeev told Spectrum. The Phobos mission has become "so politically loaded that people involved will probably be reluctant to admit the true state of affairs until the very last minute," he told the IEEE magazine.

Sagdeev formally headed the Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow, which oversees the science program of the Phobos mission. Sagdeev earlier played a key role in championing space science cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.

He is now a physics professor at the University of Maryland.