Opinion: A Roar, a Whimper and a Grunt: Russia’s Ill-Fated Love Affair with Mars

Many are saying that Phobos-Grunt failure marks the final sunset of Russia's Mars aspirations. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

As Russia’s ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission plunged Earthward and burned in the dense atmosphere, high above the eastern Pacific, near the coast of Chile, its demise was another brutal reminder that space exploration is neither routine, nor free from risk. Of course, this was not a manned voyage, but its loss nevertheless underlined the reality that after five decades of exploring the heavens our understanding of the fabled final frontier is far from complete and our knowledge of how to tame it is still imprecise. For the once-proud Russian space programme, the sight of Phobos-Grunt’s remains hurtling back towards an ignominious terrestrial grave were brutal in another way: for this voyage was the latest in a long line of calamities – launch failures, near misses, crashes and inexplicable losses of contact – to have plagued the Red Nation’s efforts to conquer the Red Planet.

It should have been quite different. In the opening decade of the present century, planetary science has been revolutionised, with regular flights to Mars, Galileo at Jupiter, Cassini at Saturn, New Horizons en route to Pluto and other robotic emissaries exploring the cosmos. Phobos-Grunt – literally ‘Phobos-Ground’ – was launched in the wee hours of 9 November 2011, with the intent that it would deposit a probe onto the surface of Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, and bring about 200 grams of soil samples back to Earth. It was an audacious mission, but a politically important one, too, for it offered a piggyback ride for China’s first Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1. The glorious roar of the Zenit rocket filled the spectators with excitement…but it would not last. Attempts to boost Phobos-Grunt out of Earth orbit and onto a trans-Mars trajectory were beset by critical engine failures, effectively stranding the probe in low-Earth orbit. By the beginning of December, circling in an elliptical path with a high point of just 190 miles, falling every day, the mission was pronounced a failure. A little over two months after launch, Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 should have been a quarter of the way to Mars, preparing for one of the most spectacular planetary missions of the decade. And in a little more than two years’ time, the sample return capsule should have brought the priceless specimens of Phobos into the hands of scientists. Instead, the remnants of Phobos-Grunt are now forever entombed in a Pacific grave.

Russian attempts to get to Mars and its moons stretch back almost to the start of the space age. Three years after Sputnik’s beep beep heralded the new era, in October 1960, a pair of craft were launched a few days apart, with the intent of hurtling past the mysterious, ruddy-surfaced world and returning the first close-up pictures. Disparagingly mocked by Western journalists as ‘the Marsniks’, both probes were lost when their rockets’ final stages failed to boost them out of Earth orbit; an ominous harbinger of the fate which would also befall Phobos-Grunt, more than five decades later.

Mars' blood-red surface has long exerted an influence on humanity, but our robotic emissaries have suffered greatly in their efforts to improve our understanding of the mysterious planet. Photo Credit: NASA

The Soviets took keen advantage of biennial launch windows – whereby Mars could be reached at the minimum cost in terms of flight duration and propellant expenditure – and another probe was sent aloft in October 1962. Known as ‘Mars 1’, it successfully broke free of the shackles of Earth…then suffered a fuel leak during its interplanetary cruise, which precipitated an abrupt loss of contact in March of the following year. Another mission flew in November 1964 and contact was again lost, just three months before its scheduled flypast of the Red Planet. So far, so bad, it seemed. Yet worse was to come, for the next handful of years would yield little kindness to the Soviets. Another pair of launch failures in early 1969 and a third in May 1971 put paid to the first attempt to get a spacecraft bearing the Hammer and Sickle into a stable orbit. By contrast, the United States had scored success after success: three perfect flybys and, in November 1971, Mariner 9 became the first man-made object to enter orbit around Mars.

A few grains of victory were seized in the next few years, with six Soviet missions launched between May 1971 and August 1973. Half of these achieved pleasing results: three reasonably successful orbiters and a partially successful lander – although contact was lost, barely 15 seconds after it touched the Martian surface – balanced against one failed orbiter and three failed landers. The prognosis was not good. When Viking 1 and 2 arrived at the planet, bearing the Stars and Stripes, their orbiters and landers generated the largest bonanza for science yet seen and it was finally obvious that Soviet technology and interplanetary capability was demonstrably inferior to that of the United States.

What the Soviets could not have expected was that America would virtually abandon Mars for the next decade and a half, as the Reagan administration focused more intently on the commercialisation and militarisation of space and ventured less into the field of planetary exploration. Here the Soviets again picked up the baton and began running. In July 1988 came a venture which had the potential to be the most exciting new planetary mission of the decade: the dual Phobos probes to Mars’ largest moon. It was a flight unlike any other; coming as it did in a new era of glasnost (openness), inaugurated under the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, which extended the hand of co-operation and friendship to the West. Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, France, West Germany and – unimaginably, it might seem – the United States itself were seduced and drawn into the project as participants.

Both probes featured orbiters and landers, with the Phobos 2 craft also equipped with a unique surface ‘hopper’ to bounce around the moon’s tortured surface, examining its characteristics, its chemical makeup, its temperature and its mechanical properties. As a destination, Phobos was an intriguing choice. The innermost of Mars’ twin moons, the adjective irregular might have been invented for Phobos, for even describing it as potato-like is overly generous. Dark, battered and carbonaceous in nature, some have seen it as a captured asteroid, whilst others have hypothesised that it originated from material thrown into space following an impact on Mars’ surface.

Phobos’ own façade bears all the hallmarks of a violent past. Its gigantic Stickney crater, named by its discoverer, Asaph Hall, in honour of his wife, is so vast – more than five miles wide, a quarter of Phobos’ maximum diameter – that whatever created it must have almost broken the tiny moon apart. Phobos lies so close to the centre of Mars (barely 5,800 km, closer than any other innermost moon to its host in the known Solar System) that in several hundred millennia it will break up, likely forming a ring of debris around the Red Planet. For years, spectroscopic observations hinted at Phobos’ low density and it is quite possible that an enormous reservoir of water ice might exist beneath a 300-ft-thick regolith. In fact, the award-winning science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson envisaged a base there, at the very centre of Stickney crater, in his Mars trilogy.

Three failed Russian missions mean that potato-like Phobos has yet to be directly sampled by spacecraft. Its peculiar appearance and vast Stickney crater are obvious in this view from one of the Viking orbiters. Image Credit: NASA

Disaster struck the international Phobos mission when a software error led controllers to lose contact with the first craft in September 1988, a mere eight weeks after launch. Its sister, Phobos 2, carrying the hopper, continued with its voyage and in January 1989 reached Mars. All hopes that this mission might succeed were dashed when the spacecraft prepared for its close approach to Phobos and the deployment of its small landing craft…whereupon communications with Earth fell abruptly silent. Two months later, after trying all options to re-establish contact, controllers were forced to declare it a failure. Some valuable data was acquired, including the first detailed mineralogical maps of Phobos, but the loss of the mission was another devastating blow for the Mars dream.

A decade later, post-Soviet Russia was a pitiful shadow of what it was; an uneven democracy of sorts had come to this vast country, but its space programme had suffered immeasurably at the hands of constant budget cuts and a lack of political support. Since the loss of Phobos 2, barely two dedicated Russian missions have taken aim at the Red Planet. The much-publicised Mars ’96, featuring an orbiter, a pair of deployable surface stations and a pair of surface ‘penetrators’, again featured international participation and was launched in November 1996. It never even left Earth orbit. The final stage of its Proton booster failed to fire and, although the spacecraft separated and ignited its own rocket engine, it actually propelled itself straight back into the atmosphere to destruction.

Against this backdrop of ill-fortune, the pessimist might see this week’s final death throes of Phobos-Grunt as inevitable; something that was bound to happen, something that was written in the stars, a mission destined never to break the chains of previous bad luck. Others might argue that its minuscule cost – just 1.5 billion roubles ($64.4 million) for the spacecraft and a mere 5 billion roubles ($163 million) for the mission itself – represents but a tiny fraction of the sums ordinarily laid out on American or European planetary voyages. Perhaps the root cause of Phobos-Grunt’s failure had more to do with its cheapness and lack of real financial support than with some notion of cruel luck.

The superstitious amongst us have another explanation. It is an explanation which was first suggested in the late 1990s as a trio of American missions – the Mars Observer, the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander – succumbed to catastrophic failures during their approach to the Red Planet or during their attempts to touch down on the boulder-strewn wilderness of its surface. Some have attributed the failures to the ‘Mars Curse’, or to the ‘Galactic Ghoul’, with its insatiable appetite for Mars probes. If you are a fan of the Transformers movies, perhaps the Decepticons are behind it all. Humour aside, there remains an ugly truth: of the three dozen American and Russian launches toward the planet since 1960, only half have succeeded.

Yet Phobos itself is another key ingredient in this stew of superstition. In Greek myth, he was the personification of horror, worshipped by the ancients through bloody sacrifices. Lion-headed, he was known to “delight in blood” and on Heracles’ shield his image terrorised opponents with its fiery, staring eyes and its mouthful of fearful, gnashing teeth. Was the failure of Phobos-Grunt a simple case of bad luck? You can make your own choice from the available options. You might choose to believe the Transformers were to blame, or UFOs, or some intangible force which does not want us to explore Mars.

You might place greater emphasis on the dark origins of the dark place that is Phobos: dark in terms of its carbonaceous makeup, its possible origins in the asteroid belt or within the bowels of Mars itself and its fearsome mythological namesake. Or you may believe more down-to-Earth explanations: human error, equipment faults and a lack of appropriate government funding and quality control oversight for what could have been a remarkable step forward for planetary exploration. As the roar of the Zenit expired and Phobos-Grunt whimpered and died, another unfortunate chapter in the difficult conquest of Mars has closed. Let us hope the next chapter will be a brighter one, filled with greater promise.


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