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Joint Russian and Chinese mission to Mars slips to 2011

Posted: September 20, 2009

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Planetary mission sources say the Russian Space Agency will officially delay launch of its sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos until 2011 because of delays with integration and test of the vehicle in time to make its originally planned October launch window.

The delay also affects China's first mission to Mars. The 240 lb. Chinese Yinghou-1 spacecraft was to be mounted atop the Russian spacecraft for transport to Martian orbit where it was to be released before the Russian spacecraft landed on Phobos. The mission was to have been launched on board a Zenit heavy booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome between October 6-16.

Credit: Lavochkin
Designed with its five primary elements stacked atop one another (see graphic above) the Russian Phobos mission is one of the most daring planetary flights ever planned by either the U.S. or former Soviet Union. It is being built by the Lavochkin Association facility, which has developed many previous successful Soviet planetary missions and also builds Russian military spacecraft today.

Those elements include a planetary cruise stage and descent stage with landing legs atop which are stacked an ascent stage and sample return capsule. The Chinese spacecraft (not pictured) is to ride on platform added above the sample capsule, but separated before the landing on Phobos.

The fully integrated spacecraft (see graphic below) has a launch weight of more than 24,400 lb. including propellants. It is to fly to Mars about 200 million mi. from Earth then land on the 15 mi. dia. moon that orbits about 5,800 mi. above Mars.

Credit: Lavochkin
Using a sample apparatus similar to that carried to Earth's moon on three successful Soviet unmanned lunar landing missions, the Phobos lander is to drill into the surface of Phobos to obtain a sample from as deep as 3 ft. below the surface. The apparatus is also designed so ground controllers using the spacecraft's television system can spot and pick up rock pebbles for return to earth. Up to about 160 grams (5.5 oz) of soil and rocks could be collected.

The sample is to be elevated to a soccer ball sized Earth return capsule mounted atop a coffee table sized Earth return bus. Several days of sample operations would be conducted before the ascent stage carrying the Earth return capsule is fired off the lander. It will need only about 22 fps of velocity to escape the small gravity of the moon.

Once back in the vicinity of Earth, the capsule would be separated from the ascent stage and reenter the Earth's atmosphere for a parachute landing and recovery in Australia.

This high resolution image of Phobos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows blotches of redish Martian-like material as well as white areas exposed by ancient meteor impacts. Credit: NASA
Phobos is believed by many planetary scientists to be a captured asteroid, but it could also be dotted with dust pockets of Martian material that could have landed on Phobos after large meteor impacts on Mars. This means that samples of the body could yield a bonanza of data on the composition of both asteroids and Mars. That data is of increasing importance given the emphasis being placed on other future sample return flights, including possible manned missions, to asteroids much closer to Earth, as well as Phobos and eventually Mars itself.

The small Chinese orbiter (see mockup below) would also mark a big increase in Chinese deep space tracking and command and control capability.

Credit: CNSA
U.S. geologist Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis (a member of both the NASA Mars rover and Phoenix lander science teams) says he has been helping the Chinese develop standardized data formats for the mission. This is so the data from the Chinese orbiter can be used by international planetary scientists.

The scientific payload on the Chinese spacecraft consists of several instruments including a camera with 660 ft. resolution to monitor Martian dust storms. It also carries a plasma package with electron and ion sensors along with a mass spectrometer, a magnetometer and radio-occultation sounder.

The shift to 2011 means that the U.S., Russia and China will all be flying major missions to Mars in that same timeframe. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover was also delayed to the late 2011 Martian launch window because of its own development and test problems.