Russia to study Martian moons once again

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - On July 7 and July 12, 1988, the Soviet Union launched two space probes, Phobos-1 and Phobos-2, to study the surface and atmosphere of Mars and its moons, Phobos, named after the Greek word for Fear, and Deimos, Terror.

Both spacecraft were to have conducted studies of the interplanetary environment en route to Mars, take observations of the Sun and survey the plasma environment around the Red Planet.

The Phobos craft featured state-of-the-art scientific equipment developed by 14 countries and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Phobos-1 operated without a hitch until a scheduled communications session on September 2, 1988 failed to occur. Contact was never reestablished. The failure has since been traced to an error in software uploaded on August 29-30 that deactivated the craft's attitude thrusters. Those thrusters kept it aligned with the Sun, and once they were turned off the spacecraft's solar panels turned away from the Sun and the batteries lost power.

Phobos-2 operated normally throughout its cruise and entered Martian orbit without problems, gathering data on the Sun, interplanetary space, Mars, and Phobos. But shortly before the final phase of the mission, during which the spacecraft was to approach within 50 meters of Phobos' surface and release two landers, contact with Phobos-2 was lost. The mission ended when the spacecraft's signal did not reappear on March 27, 1989. The cause of the failure was attributed to a malfunction of the on-board computer.

The program's failure heralded a crisis that plagued the Russian space program for years to come.

The economic chaos of the early 1990s and a lack of coordination between government and R&D agencies delayed preparations for the next Mars mission for another eight years.

That, too, ended ignominiously. Launched on November 16, 1996, the Mars-96 (Mars-8) orbiter, not to be confused with the Soviet Mars program of the same name, ultimately crashed into the Pacific Ocean due to problems with the launch vehicle.

Mars-96 was, however, a very ambitious mission and the heaviest (intended) interplanetary probe ever launched. The rocket performed properly up to parking orbit, when its fourth stage was never activated, causing the spacecraft to burn up in the atmosphere.

The Russian space program faced bleak prospects after that, receiving meager government funding. Meanwhile, the United States and the ESA continued to send automatic probes to the Red Planet. NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers are now crawling on the planet's surface, while their Russian prototypes never lifted off and are now on display at the Space Research Institute's museum.

However, the situation seems to be improving today. Under a stage-by-stage national program for studying Mars, the Phobos-Grunt automatic probe will be launched in October 2009. This cutting edge modular spacecraft costs just 1.5 billion rubles ($64.4 million).

Unlike Mars-96, the new probe will lift off on a Zenit-class medium-size rocket, rather than the heavy-duty and expensive Proton launch vehicle. If all goes to plan, the probe will bring samples of Phobos' soil samples back to Earth.

Scientists believe that Phobos, which is only 20 kilometers in diameter, could provide an insight into the origin of the Solar System's planets, including Earth.

Unlike the planets, smaller bodies have experienced no major changes due to volcanic activity and internal heating. By studying samples of Phobos' soil, scientists will be able to learn more about the Solar System's primary building material.

Phobos-Grunt will be equipped to conduct research en route to Mars and study Phobos soil samples and the Red Planet's surface. The spacecraft will also choose suitable landing sites on Mars to be explored by later missions.

After reaching Mars in ten months, the spacecraft will spend several months studying the planet and its moons from orbit.

Finally it will land on Phobos, collect soil samples and return them to Earth, leaving behind another module that will continue to transmit data on Phobos and the Red Planet for at least another 12 months.

During the program's second stage, a roving vehicle will probably land on Mars, studying landing sites selected by Phobos-Grunt.

Under the Mars-Grunt program, Martian soil samples will be delivered to Earth.

Georgy Polishchuk, CEO of Russian automatic-probe manufacturer Lavochkin Research and Production Association, which is developing the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, said there were no major technical obstacles impeding the project and that it was in its final stage.

If successful, the project will allow Russian scientists to carve themselves a niche in natural moon research, especially as their Western counterparts are in no hurry to study Phobos and Deimos. However, Phobos-Grunt must lift off during the 2009 launch window, or it would use too much fuel to reach Mars.

Much is riding on the mission. Russia will greatly damage its prestige if it delays the project yet again and fails to meet its commitments before foreign partners.

Yury Zaitsev is an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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