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Russia to restart planetary exploration with Mars probe

Posted: November 7, 2011

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Russia will launch a probe to a moon of Mars on Tuesday, resuming the country's exploration of the solar system after funding woes and mission failures hindered progress over the last two decades.

The Phobos-Grunt mission will launch from Kazakhstan on a Zenit rocket. Credit: Roscosmos
The ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission, first conceived in the 1990s, will attempt to enter orbit around Mars, land on the Red Planet's potato-shaped moon Phobos, collect samples and return to Earth.

Grunt means soil in Russian.

Russia has tried to land on Phobos before, but two probes launched in 1988 failed before they reached their goal. The failure, coupled with another embarrassing Mars mission malfunction in 1996, spelled the decline of the Russian planetary exploration program until now.

Liftoff is scheduled for 2016:03 GMT (3:16:03 p.m. EST) Tuesday aboard a Zenit 2FG rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After a nine-minute ascent into Earth orbit powered by the two-stage Zenit booster, the payload's main propulsion unit will fire twice to aim toward Mars.

The spacecraft's rocket system is based on the Fregat upper stage, a restartable hydrazine-fueled device often used to place satellites into high-altitude orbits around Earth.

Phobos-Grunt should be on course to Mars following the propulsion unit's second firing at 0120 GMT Wednesday (8:20 p.m. EST Tuesday), according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Loaded with propellant, a Chinese orbiter and scientific experiments, the intricate spacecraft weighs in at 29,000 pounds.

It reach Mars in October 2012 and fire its rocket pack once more to slide into orbit around the Red Planet. Then the craft will jettison the propulsion unit and deploy China's Yinghuo 1 orbiter, which rides piggyback on Phobos-Grunt for the journey there.

Phobos-Grunt will land on Phobos in early 2013. Credit: Roscosmos
By early 2013, Phobos-Grunt will approach Phobos and study the moon with remote sensing instruments, giving Russian scientists data needed to select a landing site.

Using a laser altimeter and radar navigation sensor, Phobos-Grunt is expected to descend to the surface of the moon in February 2013. Because of the weak gravity field at Phobos, the probe must make a gentle landing with little margin for error.

After scooping up rock with a robot arm and placing the samples in a canister, Phobos-Grunt's return capsule will depart the moon and target a landing back on Earth in August 2014 with nearly a half-pound of soil.

After sending its samples back to Earth, Phobos-Grunt's core spacecraft will remain on Phobos for a continued science mission for up to a year.

"Any one of these critical stages goes wrong, and the whole mission is compromised," said Francis Rocard, the manager of solar system exploration at CNES, the French space agency.

In addition to its partnership with China, Russia is also receiving help from Ukraine, France and other European countries.

Phobos-Grunt also carries a payload from the Planetary Society, the U.S. space advocacy group. The Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, or LIFE, will demonstrate whether microorganisms can survive long-term space journeys, testing an important part of the transpermia hypothesis, which states that life can travel between planets inside rocks.

Russia hopes to pull off the Phobos-Grunt project for $163 million, a bargain in today's world of multi-billion dollar space missions. NASA's blueprint for bringing back samples from the surface of Mars could cost up to $10 billion, according to some estimates.

NPO Lavochkin built the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, seen here in prelaunch testing. Credit: NPO Lavochkin
But Phobos is easier to reach than the Martian surface, and scientists believe the moon's rocky exterior could harbor material blasted away from the Red Planet by violent asteroid or comet impacts.

Soil from Phobos could tell scientists not only about Mars, but also how the planet's two asteroid-like moons formed. Scientists say Phobos and Deimos, the smaller of the two, could be asteroids captured by Martian gravity or could have been ejected from Mars by an impact long ago.

The oddball Phobos is scarred by craters and fractures and measures 16 miles across on its longest axis.

Phobos-Grunt mission will mark Russia's return to interplanetary exploration after a 15-year hiatus following the failure of another Mars launch in 1996. That mission, named Mars 96, fell back to Earth after a launch failure in November 1996.

The former Soviet Union achieved a series of milestones in interplanetary exploration, including the first successful landing of a robotic probe on another planet with a mission to Venus in 1970. The Soviet space program also returned samples from the moon with a series of unmanned missions.