Russia Set to Launch Historic Sample Return Mission To Martian Moon Phobos

The striking and colorful features of the Martian moon Phobos are apparent in this image taken by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft that was 4,200 mi. away from the 16 mi. diameter moon. The large crater named Stickney spans 5.6 mi. Red colors could be material blasted from Mars by meteorites. Photo Credit: JPL/Univ. of Ariz. HiRise

Russia is poised for an early November launch of a mission to land an unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the Martian Moon Phobos,  then return rock and soil samples back to Earth by 2014.

The spectacular, potentially historic mission,  is set for liftoff on a Zenit booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as early as Nov. 5.

Russian Space Agency Zenit booster, similar to this commercial version , will send the Phobos sample return mission toward Mars with nearly 2 million lb. of liftoff thrust at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It marks the first Zenit ever used for a planetary mission. Photo Credit: Zenit Ground Launch

Russian managers hope the flight returns 0.4 lb. of rock and soil from the about 16 mi. dia. moon that orbits roughly 4,800 mi. from Mars. The mission would also mark the first roundtrip between Earth and Mars orbit.

The flight will also carry China’s first Mars mission spacecraft the 250 lb. Yinghuo 1 that will be released into Martian orbit before the Phobos landing attempt. Watch for China to trumpet the achievement of a Mars mission shortly after launch with a big buildup just before release.

China’s orbiter will deploy a set of solar arrays spanning about 5 ft. then search for Martian atmospheric constituents, including methane, which could have importance to finding life on the surface.

The Phobos mission consists of five elements stacked upon each other. At the bottom level is the circular “Fregat” cruise stage with added propellant capacity to feed its multiple rocket engines and thrusters for Earth escape and Mars orbit insertion. It also has powerful guidance and navigation capabilities. The cruise stage will separate as the spacecraft nears Phobos after entering Martian orbit. China’s satellite will be tucked within  a truss between the Fregat and the Phobos lander. The lander will also serve as the launch pad for the fourth  element,  the Earth return spacecraft , that carries the fifth  element, a bowling ball sized Earth return module with the sample.  The total fueled vehicle weight is  29,700 lb.

Graphic of the lander showing key elements of the mission. The lander carries side mounted drilling equipment and instruments that will pick up tiny samples for analysis on the surface. Atop the lander is a box-like Earth return spacecraft and atop that – is the ball shaped earth return sphere carrying Phobos rock and regolith. Photo Credit: Lavochkin

If successful, this relatively unknown, high-risk mission, could have a major impact on American planning for the first manned missions to Mars.

Phobos orbits very close to Mars, but has no atmosphere and virtually no gravity to interfere with landing or ascent from its surface.  It is also is blotched with red Martian soil and has a magnificent view of Martian global surface features.

Many space planners, including Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin have called for an initial easier manned landing on Phobos before taking on a much more difficult descent, then ascent, through the Mars atmosphere with Martian gravity.  This Phobos mission could be a proof-of-concept for future manned landing on Phobos.

Neither Russia nor the Soviet Union has flown a successful planetary mission in 30 years. But the Phobos flight comes amidst several successful NASA planetary missions.  The Russian liftoff toward Mars will come just 3 weeks prior to NASA’s launch of the $3 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover planned for Nov. 25 at Cape Canaveral.

Although the two missions are designed to do totally different things, the flights recall the 1960s when planetary exploration was a battleground in the cold war. This may be the case again between the U. S. and China.

While the Phobos sample return mission has gotten little press in Russia or China, the Chinese Yinguho 1 subsatellite is being highlighted by China’s news media and in displays like this museum model. Photo Credit: Xinhua

Both the Russian Phobos sample return mission and NASA Mars rover mission have important roles to play.

One goal of 21st Century space competition could potentially be the robotic return of samples from Mars, leading to the possible discovery of life on Mars.  The U. S. has already begun planning a Mars sample return – but achieving a sample return on Phobos as early as 2014 would be a tremendous achievement for Russia.

Phobos has been showered by debris from meteor hits on Mars and such debris from Mars is likely to be part of any Phobos sample return.

Phobos samples could put into context the formation of both Mars and Phobos.

If the spacecraft is successful the samples will coast for 11 months then return to Earth in 2014, landing at the Russian Sary Shagan missile test center – which is equipped with advanced radars capable of tracking objects approaching from deep space.

The Russians have also quietly sounded out the U. S. on using American Territory, Possibly the White Sands Missile Range, for a landing.  But political and planetary protection hurdles, (should the sphere with samples rupture over U. S. territory) will likely keep the target in Russia.

A Phobos sample return could be as much as 20 years ahead of when NASA will be able to return to Earth a much more significant sample of Mars rock and soil.  A later rover, the NASA Max-C, set for launch in 2016 could be used to select samples for later pickup by different spacecraft.

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 30 years.

In 1988, Russia launched two missions to Phobos, hoping to drop small one-way landers onto its surface. But Phobos 1 was lost due to a software uplink problem. Phobos 2 then died because of an onboard computer error while maneuvering toward the 16 mi. dia. moon.

Although tiny, Phobos holds great interest for understanding the history of Mars and the nature of planetary moons and asteroids. One theory holds that it was formed from material knocked off Mars and that samples could be genuinely Mars-like.  Another theory is that it is a captured asteroid and could, instead, provide data on those ancient bodies–although it does not much resemble other asteroids seen so far.

Graphic of complete spacecraft is missing the several foot tall truss where Chinese satellite will be placed below lander. But the exploded view better shows how the Earth Return spacecraft with separate from lander on Phobos. The small box-shaped spacecraft will travel about 200 million mi. carrying the sample return vehicle that will separate close to Earth and free fall to Sary Shagan. Photo Credit: Lavochkin

The spacecraft is being completed at Lavochkin, located at the suburb of Khimki near the Sheremetyevo airport in Northwest Moscow.  It employs 5,000 people and is Russia’s primary Earth-orbit and deep-space science-development company with 40 years of planetary mission experience, including 15 successful missions to the Moon.

Lavochkin is also involved in building Russian Space Force military space systems. The company is beginning to reenergize its robotic mission capability for both the Moon and Mars. Lavochkin has been specifically tapped by the Russian government to lead all future robotic planetary development with the Phobos mission the largest so far.  The Russian Space Research Center (IKI) is designing the sensor suite.

The Zenit upper circular shaped upper stage will propel the lander out of Earth orbit then separate. The Phobos lander’s own thrusters will do extensive maneuvers to place the vehicle in Martian orbit that eventually will match the moon’s orbit around Mars.  (cq Mars)

Once landed it will then become a long-life science station on the surface of Phobos, equipped with about 20 science instruments and a drilling-rig/manipulator mounted on the side.

This rig has a mechanism to transfer the sample up the side of the cruise/lander, past the Earth return spacecraft and into the Earth descent module.

After launch from Earth, the combined vehicles will spend 11 months in transit to Mars. The triple-deck spacecraft will be inserted into
Martian orbit, where it will provide imagery and data on Mars and Phobos.

After several weeks, it will be maneuvered to fly in formation with Phobos.

After extensive imaging to find a suitable landing site, the spacecraft will be maneuvered to make a gentle landing on the moon. Because Phobos has only 0.0001 of Earth’s gravity, the landing gear will fire harpoons into the surface to prevent the lander from floating away.

European Space Agency Mars Express Orbiter image of Phobos shows two planned landing zones, each with two options for touchdown. Lander will use radar and optical systems to make landing in the fall of 2012. These locations should provide good views of surrounding terrain with Mars looming large in the background. Photo Credit: ESA

Like Earth’s moon, the same side of Phobos always faces Mars. Science managers have wanted to land on the side facing Mars because debris blasted off the Martian surface over eons may have more chance of being sampled there. Such a landing site would also allow continuous observation of Mars from about 5,000 mi. away.

But there is more risk to Earth communications and spacecraft temperature control by landing on that side. Although this is still open for review, it is likely the landing will take place on the side facing away from Mars or at the terminator area where it can still see Mars but still benefit from some shading. As of now there are two landing site areas, with two touchdown locations in each area.

Once on the surface, the first major task will be for the spacecraft to image the stars and Sun to update its navigation platform for an
accurate Earth-return maneuver.

The cruise/lander stage will also begin imaging of the surface under the lander to pick a spot for sampling. The drilling rig will be able to swivel several degrees left or right to pick a spot suitable for both soil and rock samples.

The drilling and sampling process will require 3-4 days. The objective is to load 200 grams (0.4 lb.) on board the bowling ball sized Earth descent sphere.

During sampling it is important to get several inches below the surface and find at least one rock. Preserving the integrity of the core sample is also desirable to show layering.

Once a full sample load is collected, the return spacecraft with small solar panels and the Earth descent sphere  will then be ejected off the top of the lander by springs, then fire its rocket engines to regain Martian orbit. It will then use its own small rocket engines to send the vehicle on an Earth return trajectory with the  sample sphere riding atop .

According to Anatoly Shilov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences the sampling system planned was not powerful enough for the possible hard surface.  It was the same kind of system used on the three unmanned sample devices used on Soviet Luna missions to the Moon, with a tiny an auger type device that moved material into a flexible tube placed in the earth return device.

It also had the potential for over overturning the lander during operations in the extremely weak gravity on Phobos, managers said.

The new Phobos sample device will be more of a pounder, crusher device that can break soil and small rocks without rocking the entire lander, Shilov said.

As the vehicle approaches Earth at the end of the 11-month transit, the descent module with the samples will separate from the
Earth return spacecraft.

It will then dive through Earth’s atmosphere for recovery by ground forces. About half the sample will be opened and distributed globally for analysis. The remaining 100 grams will be held back for a later second wave of analysis after results are in from the first studies.


Meanwhile, back on Phobos, the lander’s instrument suite will be obtaining images and direct compositional measurements to complement and backup the sample return. The lander is designed to survive on the surface for at least a year; select samples and spring eject the return spacecraft less than a week after landing.

Craig’s Comments: I was briefed in Moscow during Phobos mission development by science managers at the Russian Space Science Institute (IKI) and by spacecraft engineers at Lavochkin, the company building the spacecraft. Russian engineers view it as a milestone flight for Russia to regain big league status again in planetary spaceflight.

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