Daring Russian sample return mission to Martian moon Phobos aims for November liftoff

October 14, 2011 By Ken Kremer, Universe Today
Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft set to Launch in November 2011. The flight version of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft minus its main solar panels is being lowered into a vacuum chamber for thermal, vacuum and electric tests during June 2011. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

In just over three weeks’ time, Russia plans to launch a bold mission to Mars whose objective, if successful , is to land on the Martian Moon Phobos and return a cargo of precious soil samples back to Earth about three years later.

The purpose is to determine the origin and evolution of Phobos and how that relates to Mars and the evolution of the solar system.

Liftoff of the Phobos-Grunt space probe will end a nearly two decade long hiatus in Russia’s exploration of the Red Planet following the failed Mars 96 mission and is currently scheduled to head to space just weeks prior to this year’s other Mars mission – namely NASA’s next Mars rover, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

Blastoff of Phobos-Grunt may come as early as around Nov. 5 to Nov. 8 atop a Russian Zenit 3-F rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch window extends until about Nov. 25. Elements of the spacecraft are undergoing final prelaunch testing at Baikonur.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

Baikonur is the same location from which Russian manned Soyuz rockets lift off for the International Space Station. Just like NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the mission was originally intended for a 2009 launch but was prudently delayed to fix a number of technical problems.

“November will see the launch of the Phobos-Grunt interplanetary automatic research station aimed at delivering samples of the Martian natural satellite’s soil to Earth’” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, speaking recently at a session of the State Duma according to the Voice of Russia, a Russian government news agency.

The spacecraft will reach the vicinity of Mars after an 11 month interplanetary cruise around October 2012. Following several months of orbital science investigations of Mars and its two moons and searching for a safe landing site, Phobos-Grunt will attempt history’s first ever touchdown on Phobos. It will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the surface of the tiny moon and collect up to 200 grams of soil and rocks with a robotic arm and drill.

After about a year of surface operations, the loaded return vehicle will blast off from Phobos and arrive back at Earth around August 2014. These would be the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russia’s Luna 24 in 1976.

Phobos-Grunt mission scenario. Credit: CNES

“The way back will take between nine and 11 months, after which the return capsule will enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 12 kilometers per second. The capsule has neither parachute nor radio communication and will break its speed thanks to its conical shape,” said chief spacecraft constructor Maksim Martynov according to a report from the Russia Today news agency. He added that there are two soil collection manipulators on the lander because of uncertainties in the characteristics of soil.

Phobos-Grunt was built by NPO Lavochkin and consists of a cruise stage, orbiter/lander, ascent vehicle, and Earth return vehicle.

The spacecraft weighs nearly 12,000 kg and is equipped with a sophisticated 50 kg international science payload, in particular from France and CNES, the French Space Agency.

Also tucked aboard is the Yinghou-1 microsatellite supplied by China. The 110 kg Yinghou-1 is China’s first probe to launch to Mars and will study the Red Planet’s magnetic and gravity fields and surface environment from orbit for about 1 year.

“It will be the first time such research [at Mars] will be done by two spacecraft simultaneously. The research will help understand how the erosion of ’ atmosphere happens,” said Professor Lev Zelyony from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, according to Russia Today.

Explore further: Russia plans two new missions to Mars

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3.8 / 5 (6) Oct 14, 2011
This is an exceptionally complex mission for the Russians.

Good luck.
3.5 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2011
It's an exceptionally complex mission for anyone. Russia is second only to the US in terms of it's space exploration capabilities.
1 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2011
And it's second to none in screwing space missions up!
5 / 5 (3) Oct 14, 2011
"These would be the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russias Luna 24 in 1976"
35 years? There is no excuse.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2011
Fingers crossed that the mission includes a close examination of the monolith like object on Phobos.
not rated yet Oct 14, 2011
thats just monophobia
2 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2011
Gee. 7 ounces of rocks. That's not much at all. Depending on density, that's a lump of rock or dirt which will be about the size of your thumb or so, maybe 1 cubic inch of rock or a couple cubic inches of dirt, if you're lucky.

The billion dollars piece of dirt. LOL.

Sure, I mean you can do a lot with that in terms of mineralogy and spectrometry, but that's just a small surface sample.

I mean, don't screw up and collect ejecta from a meteor crater or something like that, you want to get what the moon is made of, not space dust from a comet or asteroid.

But seriously, what do they expect to learn from this?

To do serioius mineralogy you want to get at least a few feet to a few meters below the surface.
5 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2011
It has to reach Mars, spend a year in orbit, land on Phobos, spend another year there doing stuff, and then return? Ambitious, complex, risky, breaking a bunch of barriers all at once... How every space probe mission should be! I'm amazed.

With the MSL also on its way, both projects are going to be eager to steal the spotlight. Best of luck, please let these two succeed or there won't be a mission like them for another 35 years!
1 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2011

The ascent of the Russian space program has been spectacular!

Analysis of Martian meteorites indicate that Xe on Mars will be more like Xe on Earth and in FeS inclusions of meteorites than like the "strange" Xe seen in Jupiter and in carbonaceous inclusions of chondritic meteorites.

1. Terrestrial-type xenon in meteoritic troilite



2. Noble gas anomalies and synthesis of the chemical elements


With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

5 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2011
And it's second to none in screwing space missions up!

Quite the contrary. Russia has a reputation for being the most reliable.

Russia's hardware gives a less sleek impression, there's a very slight impression like an old and clunky but thoroughly reliable steam engine. And astronaut vehicles are less comfortable. But generally their hardware just works and works and works.

No space venture is free of failures. And specifically on Mars Russia has been unlucky. But Russia really does have a very good reputation among people who follow space-launch statistics.
not rated yet Oct 15, 2011
This i a truly path-breaking mission; good luck to our Russian friends!

Dave Huntsman

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