SAM: NASA’s Attempt to Repeat Viking’s Search for Martian Organics

Curiosity Rover

After 36 years of debate, confusion, and failed attempts by other space agencies to answer a basic question, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is on its way to repeat the search for organic matter that eluded the two Viking probes.

With 96 days left until landing, MSL will touch down at the Gale Crater this August. The rover, called Curiosity, will be the largest vehicle delivered to our neighboring planet thus far. Weighing in at 900 kg, Curiosity is nearly five times as large as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed eight years ago, and more than 1.5 times as large as each Viking lander that arrived on planet in 1976.

Like the Vikings and Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity was conceived and launched, largely to gather information that may tell us whether the Red Planet harbors microbial life. Instrumentation launched for in situ analysis has been advancing steadily since the Viking era, yet each chapter in the story of the search for Martian life builds upon the previous ones.

Though usually mentioned only briefly in the days when Spirit and Opportunity were making headlines, the twin Viking landers were amazing craft, not only for their time, but even for today. The instrument suite of each Viking lander included a suite of three biology experiments, instruments designed for the direct detection of microbes, should the regolith at either of the two Viking landing sites contain any. While subsequent landing craft have carried instruments designed to assess Mars’ potential for life, none since the Project Viking has been built to look for Martian life forms directly.

According to Viking investigator Gilbert Levin, the Viking landers already discovered Martian life. Back in 1976-1977, Levin’s instrument, known as the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, yielded positive results at Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, the two Viking landing sites. When treated with a solution containing small, organic chemicals labeled with radioactive carbon, regolith samples taken at the landing sites released a gas, indicated by an increase in radioactivity in the space above the sample.

While Levin believes the gas is carbon dioxide resulting from the oxidation of the organic chemicals, it’s also conceivable that the chemicals were reduced to another gas, methane. Either way, since heating the samples to a temperature high enough to kill most of the microbes that we know on Earth prevented the gas release, the Viking science team concluded initially that the LR had detected life.

Most of the science team, but not Levin, decided that the gas release in the LR must have resulted from a non-biological chemical reaction. This rethinking was due to variety of factors, but the most important of which was that the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) of each lander failed to detect organic matter in the samples. As the late Carl Sagan explained it on his television series, Cosmos, “If there is life on Mars, where are the dead bodies?”

While most astrobiologists and planetary scientists do not agree with Levin that the results of his 36 year-old experiment constitute conclusive evidence for Martian life, there is a growing number of Mars scientists who are equivocal on the issue. According to Levin, Sagan moved into the equivocal category in 1996, after astrobiologist David McKay and colleagues published a paper in the journal Science describing fossilized life in meteorite ALH84001, one of a handful of meteorites known to be from Mars.

The SAM experiment.

Traveling within Curiosity’s enormous instrument package is a suite of machines called SAM, which stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars”. After all of these years, SAM represents NASA’s first attempt to repeat Viking’s search for Martian organics, but with more advanced technology.

This is not to say that other attempts were not made during the intervening years. In 1996, the Russian Federal Space Agency launched a Mars-bound probe carrying not only organic chemistry equipment but an upgraded version of Levin’s experiment. Rather than treating regolith samples with a mixture of “right-handed” and “left-handed” forms of organic substrates (known in chemistry as racemic mixtures), the new LR would have treated some samples with a left-handed substrate (L-cysteine) and others with the substrate’s mirror image (D-cysteine).

Had results been the same for L- and D-cysteine, a non-biological mechanism would have seemed all the more likely. However, if the active agent in the Martian regolith favored one compound at the expense of the other, this would indicate life. Even more intriguing: if the active agent favored D-cysteine, it would have suggested an origin of life on Mars separate from the origin of life on Earth, since terrestrial life forms use mostly left-handed amino acids. Such a result would suggest that life originates fairly easily, implying a cosmos teaming with living forms.

But Russia’s Mars ’96 probe crashed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after liftoff. A few years later, the European Space Agency sent Beagle 2 to Mars, carrying an advanced organic detection package, but this probe too was lost.

While Curiosity’s SAM does not include an LR experiment of any sort, it does have organic matter detection capability that can operate in mass spectrometry (MS), or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS-MS) mode. In addition to being able to detect certain classes of organic compounds that the Viking GCMS would have missed in surface material, SAM also is designed to look for methane in the Martian atmosphere. Though atmospheric methane already has been detected already from orbit, detailed measurements of its concentration and fluctuations will help astrobiologists to determine whether the source is methane-producing microorganisms.

Phobos-Grunt Predicted to Fall in Afghanistan on January 14


According to a news report in RiaNovosti, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft will fall January 14th, “somewhere between 30.7 degrees north and 62.3 degrees east,” placing debris near the city of Mirabad, in southwestern Afghanistan. RiaNovosti said this prediction is according to the United States Strategic Command who calculated the craft will reenter Earth’s atmosphere at 2:22 am.

Editor’s Update: In a call to USSTRATCOM to verify this information, a spokesperson said, “We are not making any statement at USSTRACOM at this time because we are not the lead for this event and cannot make an official statement for any predictions or what is releasable at this time.”

“Please note that the U.S. Strategic Command prediction had a large uncertainty associated with it, i.e., 11 days,” Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris told Universe Today in an email. “No one is yet able to predict with confidence the day the Phobos-Grunt will reenter.”

If the probe is predicted to fall on land, this raises the possibility of recovering the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), designed to investigate how life forms could spread between neighboring planets.

The Phobos-Grunt mission profile. Credit: Roscosmos

Carrying about 50 kilograms of scientific equipment, the unpiloted Phobos-Grunt probe was launched November 9th on a mission to the larger of Mars two small moons. Although the Zenit 2 rocket that launched the craft functioned flawlessly, sending Grunt into a low Earth orbit, the upper stage booster, known as Fregat, failed to boost the orbit and send it on a trajectory toward Mars. Thought to have reverted to safe mode, Phobos-Grunt has been flying straight and periodically adjusting her orbit using small thruster engines. While this maneuvering has extended the amount of time that the probe could remain in space before reentering Earth’s atmosphere, ground controllers have been struggling to establish a communication link.

For a while, space commentators considered the possibility that Grunt might be sent on an alternate mission to Earth’s Moon or an asteroid, if control could be restored after the window for a launch to Mars and Phobos was lost. During the past few weeks, the European Space Agency (ESA) started and ended efforts to communicate with the spacecraft on several occasions, but succeeded only twice. Various scenarios were imagined in which aspects of the probe’s mission could be salvaged, despite the serious malfunction that prevented the craft from leaving Earth orbit. But at this point, the only direction for the spacecraft to go is down.

In addition to equipment for making celestial and geophysical measurements and for conduct mineralogical and chemical analysis of the Phobosian regolith (crushed rock and dust), Grunt carries Yinhou-1, a Chinese probe that was to orbit Mars for two years. After releasing Yinhou-1 into Mars orbit and landing on Phobos, Grunt would have launched a return capsule, carrying a 200 gram sample of regolith back to Earth. Also traveling within the return capsule is the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE).

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

Specifically, LIFE is designed to study the effects of the interplanetary environment on various organisms during a long duration flight in space beyond the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which protect organisms in low Earth orbit from some of the most powerful components of space radiation. Although the spacecraft has not traveled outside of the belts, the organisms contained within the LIFE biomodule will have been in space for more than two months when the probe reenters the atmosphere.

The many tons of toxic fuel are expected to explode high in the atmosphere. However, since the return capsule is designed to survive the heat of reentry and make a survivable trajectory to the ground, it is quite possible that it will reach Afghanistan in one piece. Because the LIFE biomodule is designed to withstand an impact force of 4,000 Gs, it is possible that the experiment can be recovered and the biological samples studied.

To be sure, the possibility of recovering an unharmed returned capsule and LIFE depends on the willingness of the inhabitants around the landing site to allow the Russian Space Agency to pick it up. Given the proximity of the predicted landing area to a war zone and the fact that the Taliban are not known for being enthusiastic about space exploration and astrobiology, it is also possible that a landing on land could turn out no better than a landing over the deepest part of the ocean.

Source: RiaNovosti

Russian Lunar Exploration Program at Full Speed, Despite Failure of Mars Moon Probe


Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

While the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) prepares for the pending destruction of its Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, an ambitious program focusing on lunar exploration is moving to center stage. Although the Soviet Union launched three successful lunar sample return missions, the last such probe was Luna-24, in 1976.

Scheduled for launch in 2014 or 2015, Luna-Glob (Russian for lunar sphere) consists of two craft: Luna-Glob 1 and Luna-Glob 2 (also called Luna-Resource). In addition to carrying out various studies while orbiting the Moon, Luna-Glob 1 is to carry four probes known as penetrators. Built by Japan, the penetrators will be launched from lunar orbit, then slam into the lunar surface and take seismographic readings. Since similar readings were taken in the landing regions of NASA’s Apollo missions (after used stages of the vehicles were crashed on the Moon deliberately to shake it up), two of the penetrators will be aimed near the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 landing sites. It is hoped that comparison of results with the seismic data that were collected in the 1970s from these and the other sites will answer questions regarding the Moon’s origins.

Artist concept of Russia's Luna-Glob mission which is scheduled to launch in 2014. Credit: NASA

Previously, I’ve used the term Luna-Grunt in reference to a re-purposed Phobos-Grunt, sent to orbit Earth’s own Moon, if control is restored but too late to send it to the Martian moon Phobos. But Grunt is the Russian word for “ground,” or “soil.” Just as Phobos-Grunt was designed to analyze and return Phobosian regolith (not actually soil, but crushed rock and dust on the surface of a celestial body), Russia’s Luna-Grunt program will study lunar regolith. Currently, two Luna-Grunt spacecraft are planned, each featuring an orbiter and a lander. While the first Luna-Grunt lander, scheduled for a 2014 launch, will carry a rover loaded with instruments for regolith analysis, the second lander will feature an ascent stage with a sample return capsule. Designed to return to Earth, the Luna-Grunt capsule will be similar to return capsule of Phobos-Grunt, but will carry five times the amount of regolith (1 kilogram for Luna-Grunt vs. 200 grams for Phobos-Grunt).

Scheduled for launch in 2013 or 2014, Luna-Resource (Luna-Glob 2) will be a joint mission between Roscosmos and the Indian Space Research Agency. Like Luna-Glob 1 and Luna-Grunt 1, the main components will be a lunar orbiter and roving vehicle. Called, Chandrayaan-2, the rover will travel near one of the lunar poles for about a year. Luna-Resource is expected to provide valuable information concerning solar wind on the lunar surface. Like the other missions, it also carries instruments for analysis of the lunar regolith. Included in the analysis will be a search for water, which is thought to be present, particular in the Moon’s polar regions.

While the lunar missions to be launched during the next half decade will be unpiloted, statements by various Russian scientists and cosmonauts in recent months suggest that Roscosmos is interested in Earth’s companion as a location for a lunar base, or even a colony .

Russian Space Program Prepares for Phobos-Grunt Re-Entry

Configuration of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

As last-ditch efforts to recover control of the unpiloted Phobos-Grunt spacecraft continue, officials, engineers, and scientists at the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) have shifted their focus to the issue of reentry. Launched November 9 by a Zenit-2 rocket on a mission to return a sample from Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two small moons, the spacecraft reached low Earth orbit. However, since the engine of the upper stage that was to propel it on a trajectory to Mars failed to ignite, the spacecraft continues to orbit Earth in a low orbit. Despite some limited success in communicating with Phobos-Grunt by way of tracking stations that the European Space Agency (ESA) operates in Perth, Australia, and Masplalomas, Canary Islands, the spacecraft remains stranded in an orbit whose decay will take the craft into the atmosphere sometime in early January.
Continue reading “Russian Space Program Prepares for Phobos-Grunt Re-Entry”

A Day in the Sun: Will It Make a Difference for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt?



Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

It has been trapped in low Earth orbit for more than a month. So low is the orbit that it moves too fast to be contacted – unless controllers on the ground just happen to beam a signal at some unlikely angle. So short does its battery power last that it must be in sunlight while also in position to receive signals. Then, it must still have power to send telemetry back to the ground.

Even with these obstacles, Russia’s Phobos- Grunt probe did manage to communicate with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) antenna in Perth, Australia twice a couple of weeks ago, indicating that some of its systems were functioning. But subsequent attempts at communication have failed, despite the addition of ESA’s Canary Islands antenna at Maspalomas to the worldwide effort to reestablish control over the spacecraft.

Tracking of Grunt’s orbit has shown that its high point (apogee) and low point (perigee) continue to decrease, measuring about 289 kilometers and 203 kilometers in altitude, respectively, the last time I checked. Stories out of Russia in recent days describe how electrical cables found to be malfunctioning weeks before the launch were cut and connections re-soldered in a hurry to have the craft ready. Add to this the fact that the major sources on developments with the Grunt mission since its November 9 launch – Ria Novosti, the Russian Space Web, and ESA operations – all expect the craft to reenter Earth’s atmosphere in early January.

Taking all of this into account, it seems unlikely that Phobos-Grunt will ever respond to a signal again and say, “privyet’, much less turn on its engines and warp out of orbit. But there is an opportunity coming, a period when the odds that are stacked against the spacecraft may improve just a little.

Beginning Tuesday, December 13 at 17:00 universal time (UT) to Wednesday December 14, 23:00, Phobos-Grunt will be in sunlight throughout its entire orbit. It is not completely clear whether or not ESA will attempt to contact the probe during this period from Perth, or Maspalomas. Although attempts from Maspalomas were made throughout last week, the same attempts were scheduled to end on Friday, December 9. On the other hand, in a letter informing scientists participating in the mission that failure was the outcome, Phobos-Grunt science director, Lev Zelenyi, wrote: “Lavochkin Association specialists will continue their attempts to establish connection with the spacecraft and send commands until the very end of its existence.” Thus, despite the fact that the Russian Grunt team now is focused on the issue of reentry, we should not be surprised if they ask ESA to make one more attempt on Tuesday.

Will the greater than usual amount of sunlight allow the spacecraft’s communication system to work better than it usually does when it travels over tracking stations? Maybe yes, and maybe no. We should not get our hopes up that the craft will actually do anything but fall to Earth, and we’ve already discussed the possibility of the craft’s return capsule coming back in one piece.

But let us allow Phobos-Grunt its day in the Sun.

Not Giving Up Yet: ESA Resumes Effort to Communicate with Phobos-Grunt


Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is in no better position than it was a month ago, when it reached low Earth orbit on November 9 yet failed to ignite the upper stage engine that was to propel it to Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two small moons. Indeed, with an orbit measuring 204.823 kilometers at perigee (the low point) and 294.567 kilometers at apogee as of today, the spacecraft is well on its well to a fiery reentry through Earth’s atmosphere in early January if it cannot be rescued in the intervening time. But the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is not ready to give up on the probe yet, and have asked ESA to resume trying to contact Phobos-Grunt.

Despite success in contacting Grunt and getting it to send telemetry two weeks ago using a modified antenna in Perth Australia, subsequent attempts to command the spacecraft to boost her orbit failed.

Then last week, after modifying another antenna, this one in Maspalomas on the Canary Islands, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that efforts to track and communicate with the spacecraft would end. As a result, any remaining hope that the craft might at least be boosted to a more stable orbit to allow for diagnoses and eventual repair faded away.

Maspalomas station hosts a 15-metre antenna with reception in S- and X-Band and transmission in S-band. It is located on the campus of the Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aerospacial (INTA), in the southern part of the Canary Islands' Gran Canaria, at Montaña Blanca.Credit: ESA

But, in response to requests from the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), ESA now has decided to renew tracking and communications efforts from the Maspalomas station. Located off of the northwest coast of Africa, Maspalomas is well-situated with respect to Phobos-Grunt’s course around Earth. Since fewer communication attempts have been made from Maspalomas as compared with Perth, ESA and Roscosmos may be thinking that not all potential tricks to get the geometry right have been exhausted. Thus, new attempts to hail the unpiloted science probe began on Monday and will continue through Friday, December 9th. Presumably, ESA would continue to support the mission beyond Friday, if anything happens suggesting that Phobos-Grunt has received the instructions and is capable of responding, even in part.

Designed to land on the surface of Phobos, the Grunt spacecraft carries about 50 kilograms of scientific equipment built to make celestial and geophysical measurements, and to conduct mineralogical and chemical analysis of the regolith (crushed rock and dust) of the tiny moon. The chemical analysis that is to be conducted includes a search for organic matter, the building material for life. Studies to be conducted on the Phobosian surface potentially could elucidate the origins of Phobos and the other Martian moon, Deimos. Additionally, the presence of organic matter on Phobos would suggest that the surface of Mars itself contains organics. Despite findings by NASA’s Viking landing crafts in the 1970s suggesting that the surface of Mars lacks organic material, studies by more recent probes suggest that compounds known as perchlorates –detected by Viking but dismissed as contaminants from Earth– may have been native to Mars. This issue will be investigated further when NASA’s Curiosity rover arrives on the Red Planet several months from now.

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

Grunt also carries Yinhou-1, a Chinese probe that is to orbit Mars for 2 years. After releasing Yinhou-1 into Mars orbit and landing on Phobos, Grunt is designed to launch a return capsule, carrying a 200 gram sample of regolith back to Earth. Also traveling within the return capsule is the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), designed to investigate how readily living forms could spread between neighboring planets.

Although prospects for this ambitious mission still look bleak, Alexander Zakharov of Russia’s Space Research Institute, who was instrumental in getting the LIFE experiment onto the Grunt mission, has suggested that a new Grunt mission might be launched, presumably on time for the next launch window to Mars, which opens in approximately 26 months.

Meanwhile, today, NASA’s space debris chief said that Phobos-Grunt would pose no threat to Earth when it reenters the atmosphere.

Although the window for a trip to Mars is about to close, should control over Phobos-Grunt be restored, it might be kept in a higher orbit for two years, or sent to an alternate destination, such as Earth’s own Moon, or an asteroid.

Canary Islands Antenna Being Modified to Boost Signal to Struggling Russian Mars Probe


Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

As part of an effort to improve communication with the Russian Space Agency’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, modifications are being made to a 15-meter dish antenna at Maspalomas station. Located in the Canary Islands off the Atlantic coast of North Africa, the station provides tracking, telemetry, and other functions in support of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) of the European Space Agency (ESA).

Last week, ESA succeeded in communicating with Phobos-Grunt on two successive days after a feedhorn antenna was added to an antenna near Perth, Australia similar to the facility in Maspalomas. Although this enabled the downloading of spacecraft telemetry, attempts later in the week to make renewed contact failed. After no attempts were made over the weekend, commands aimed at getting the spacecraft to boost its orbit were sent yesterday, also from Perth, but tracking this morning revealed that the commands had not been executed.

Launched November 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, Grunt is an unpiloted science probe built to travel to Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two small moons. On board is a science payload consisting of numerous instruments designed to elucidate the structure and origin of Phobos, the composition of its surface material, and possibly dust from Mars that may be present as well. A Chinese probe called Yinhuo-1 is to be delivered into orbit around Mars, while the rest of the payload is to land on the Phobosian surface. Some time after landing, a 200 gram sample of the surface is to be deposited into a capsule which then will launch for a journey back to Earth. Also traveling in the return capsule is the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), which I helped to design. As with the Phobosian surface sample, the LIFE experiment will be valuable scientifically, only if the return capsule can be returned to Earth.

Although Phobos-Grunt was delivered into space nearly three weeks ago by a Zenit 2 rocket launch that appeared flawless, an upper stage rocket known as Fregat failed to ignite. This left the spacecraft in a low Earth orbit that improved as a result of the automated maneuvering, but that will decay by mid-January if the altitude is not boosted more significantly. Because a low orbit requires a spacecraft to move more swiftly with respect to the ground, communication is extremely limited due both to time and geometry. By allowing Maspalomas to operate similarly to Perth, but from its different location, both geometric and time factors affecting communication will be improved. Should this result in the spacecraft executing commands to climb to a higher orbit, further communication and diagnosis of spacecraft systems then would become much easier.

Learn more about the Maspalomas antenna here.

Contact Established with Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft — Can the Mission Go On?


Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update on the mission for Universe Today.

In an exciting development in the ongoing story of the Phobos-Grunt mission, a tracking station at Perth, Australia established contact with the Russian spacecraft on November 22 at 20:25 UT. This was the first signal received on Earth since the mission to Mars’ moon was launched on November 8, 2011.

Teams from ESA, who made the initial contact, are now working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communications with the spacecraft. As controllers begin the task of figuring out how to use this achievement to enable sending the spacecraft new commands, discussion is ongoing on whether the launch window will still be open for the craft to complete the mission.

The hopes are now is that at the very least engineers can prevent the spacecraft from plummeting back to Earth – and with guarded optimism that the mission could proceed in some manner.

Before contact was made, some reports said that if contact was made by November 24, the mission could proceed as planned, while other experts were saying that the launch window to complete the sample return mission closed on November 21.

But yet, a mission leaving from Earth orbit well into December might still succeed.

Engineers tuck Phobos-Grunt into the rocket fairing. Credit: Roscosmos

Built to travel to Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, the centerpiece of the unmanned spacecraft is a small capsule in which 200 grams of regolith (surface material consisting of dust and crushed rock) is to make a return flight to Earth. To launch the capsule on a flight that would return it to Earth in 2014, the spacecraft was scheduled to land on Phobos in February 2013 after entering orbit around Mars in October 2012.

A launch window is a period during which travel from one celestial body to another is possible, given a spacecraft’s propulsion capabilities and the alignment of the celestial bodies as they move through space. In the future, advanced propulsion technologies could allow for trips between Earth and Mars to depart at any time, but for now spacecraft must wait for the optimal moment. For trajectories from Earth to Mars, launch windows occur roughly every 26 months, as do launch windows for inbound flights to Earth from Mars.

The launch window for an Earth-to-Mars trajectory actually would allow Grunt to reach Mars and Phobos, if the spacecraft is readied for departure within two or three weeks from today. In such a case, however, the collection of regolith on the Phobosian surface would take place after that window has closed for the capsule to launch back to Earth. This is why people are saying that the window for Phobos-Grunt will close this Thursday.

But, as stated earlier, the window could still be open through mid-December. To see why, let’s take a glimpse of the Grunt’s science payload and other components . Sitting in front of what the Russian Space Agency is calling the sustainer engine, whose job is to propel the spacecraft from Earth to Mars, is a 110 kilogram probe called Yinhuo-1. China’s first Mars probe, Yinhuo-1 is to orbit the Red Planet for two years, performing various scientific studies. Moving forward from Yinhuo-1, brings us to the interplanetary module, Grunt’s descent stage.

Costing 5 billion rubles, or about 160 million US dollars, the interplanetary module is equipped with a descent engine and legs for landing on the Martian moon, machinery for scooping the regolith sample, and about 50 kilograms of extremely advanced scientific equipment whose value to the mission does not depend on whether the regolith sample makes it back to Earth.

Finally, there is the ascent stage and the return capsule that will lift off with it for the flight to Earth. In addition to accommodating the regolith that will be deposited inside, the capsule holds the Planetary Society’s LIFE biomodule, a study of the effects of the interplanetary space environment on organisms during a long-term voyage through space.

Before and after the departure of the return capsule, the instruments of the interplanetary module will be at work, performing celestial measurements, studying solar wind, and conducting geophysical studies -experiments whose results will help planetary scientists to understand the origin of our Solar System. The science package also will perform elemental, chemical, mineralogical, and thermal analysis of the regolith, look for traces of gases from Mars, and search for organic matter, the stuff of life.

ESA's Perth station, which made contact with the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, is located 20 kilometres north of Perth, Australia. Credit: ESA

If Grunt were to make a one-way trip to Phobos, all of these studies could be performed, while Yinghuo-1 could be deployed around Mars, as is supposed to happen during a round-trip voyage. If it were determined that the capsule really had no chance of making it from Phobos back to Earth, the capsule might even be jettisoned in high Earth orbit before the sustainer stage completes the final burn to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. This might return the LIFE biomodule to Earth after a long trajectory through deep space that would satisfy the objectives of the experiment. Then, we could recover our biomodule and study the organisms as planned.

On the other hand, controllers might consider sending the return capsule to Phobos despite the closure of the launch window for a return flight. After landing on the Martian moon atop the interplanetary module, the ascent stage need only wait until the next launch window opens 26 months later for arrival on Earth in 2016.

The contact now made with the spacecraft may open up even more possibilities for saving the mission. ESA said in a press release that the signals sent to Phoboos-Grunt commanded the spacecraft’s transmitter to switch on, sending a signal down to the station’s 15 m dish antenna.

Data received from Phobos-Grunt were then transmitted from Perth to Russian mission controllers via ESA’s Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany, for analysis.

Additional communication slots are available on November 23 at 20:21–20:28 GMT and 21:53–22:03 GMT, and ESA teams are working closely with Russian controllers to determine how best to maintain communication with their spacecraft.

See the ESA press release here.

Can Phobos-Grunt Still be Saved? Scientists Hold Out Hope as Deadlines Loom


Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update for Universe Today on the likelihood of saving the mission.

Although the launch window for a round-trip to Mars closed yesterday (November 21, 2011) with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe still circling in low Earth orbit, a one-way flight to the Red Planet will be possible for another few weeks. As Russian engineers frantically try to contact the silent probe, scientists from the Yinghuo-1 and LIFE experiments are holding out hope that they could still complete their missions, or a perhaps even a modified version of their experiments.

Launched November 9 to collect a surface sample from the larger of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, the 13-ton spacecraft was to be boosted from its initial parking orbit low in Earth’s skies within hours after reaching space, when the engine of its Fregat upper stage failed to ignite. Thought to have reverted to safe mode, Phobos-Grunt has been flying straight and periodically adjusting her orbit using small thruster engines. While this maneuvering has extended the amount of time that the probe can remain in space before reentering Earth’s atmosphere, ground controllers have been struggling to establish a communication link.

The Phobos-Grunt mission profile. Credit: Roscosmos

Had the malfunction occurred just one step further into the flight –after a first burn of the Fregat was to raise the apogee (the highest point) of the spacecraft’s orbit to an altitude of about 4,170 kilometers– the timing and geometry between Earth-bound transmitters and the spacecrafts antennae would have made signaling the craft a straight forward task. But with Grunt orbiting much lower (thus moving much faster with respect to the ground), and with an antenna that could receive the signal obstructed partially by a fuel tank that was to be jettisoned after the first Fregat burn, controllers have only a couple of minutes at a time to attempt communication. Since the spacecraft was not designed for this scenario, getting her attention may be depend on prospect of getting the signals toward her at some unlikely angle. In other words, restoring control over Phobos-Grunt may be a matter of luck.

But if luck is a factor in recovering the spacecraft, then the extension of her expected time in orbit due to thruster firings may prove helpful. The more time that controllers have to attempt contact, the better the chances that they’ll get lucky at some point before the craft reenters the atmosphere.

If this should happen, however, where should the probe travel? As of yesterday, it no longer will be able to go Mars, land on the surface of Phobos, scoop a 200 gram sample into the specially-designed return capsule, and still have a window for the capsule to be launched on a trajectory back to Earth. Last week, a lunar mission was discussed as a possibility.

But as a story released yesterday by the Russian news service Ria Novosti notes, the launch window to Mars for a craft that does not need to return to Earth remains open. In the case of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory with its rover “Curiosity,” for example, the launch window to Mars is open until December 18.

This means that –if communication with Grunt is established– the Phobos-Grunt could be launched on a trajectory to Mars. This would not support the objective of return a sample from the Phobosian surface. However, since China’s Yinghuo-1 probe is piggybacked on the spacecraft for delivery into orbit around Mars, its mission at least would not be affected by the lack of a return flight.

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

Then, there is the Planetary Society’s Phobos-LIFE. The objective of this project is to study the effects of the interplanetary environment on various organisms during a long duration flight in space beyond the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which protect organisms in low Earth orbit from some of the most powerful components of space radiation. If the biomodule containing the LIFE organisms travels one way to Mars, it will not help the experiment. But it may be possible to jettison the return capsule when the spacecraft is in a high orbit around Earth, before the final burn sending it toward Mars has been completed. If this happens, the return capsule –which would not be needed anyway for a one-way Mars mission– might be set on a trajectory that takes it beyond the Van Allen belts for many months, or longer, but that eventually takes it back to Earth. If so –and as usual, I emphasize the “IF” – the capsule could make the reentry and landing that it was designed to do, we could recover our biomodule and study the organisms as planned.

Consolation Prize for Phobos-Grunt? Experts Consider Possibilities for Sending Spacecraft to Moon or Asteroid


Editor’s note: Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, provides an update for Universe Today on the likelihood of saving the mission.

If communication with Russia’s troubled Phobos-Grunt is not established by November 21, the window for a trajectory to the Martian moon Phobos, will close, experts say. But this would not mean that the spacecraft could not travel to a different destination. In a statement published earlier today by the news and information agency Ria Novosti, Russian space expert Igor Lisov suggested that Phobos-Grunt could be sent to orbit the Moon – Earth’s Moon, that is – or may be even an asteroid, if communication is restored at any point before the 13-ton probe re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Evolution of Phobos-Grunt’s Orbit

Boosted into space by a Zenit 2 rocket last week, Phobos-Grunt entered into a low parking orbit, where she was supposed to wait only for 2.5 hours before the next booster stage, Fregat, would send her to a higher orbit and then on to Mars. Because the Fregat engine did not ignite, Grunt still orbits just above our heads. “Highly elliptical, with an initial altitude of 347 kilometers at apogee (the high point) and 207 kilometers at perigee (the low point), the orbit initially was predicted to decay by late November, causing the spacecraft to reenter the atmosphere and burn up. But while the apogee has been decreasing (down to 326 km today), the perigee actually has been increasing by about 0.5 kilometers per day (up to 210.2 km today), due to periodic maneuvering by way of the probe’s small thrusters. After it was realized that the first maneuvering episode had improved the orbit, the predicted reentry date was adjusted to mid January, and if the thrusting episodes continue we can expect the date of the probe’s demise to be moved back still more.

An artists concept of the Phobos-Grunt Mission. Credit: Roscosmos

Time for Trajectory to Phobos is Running Out

The improved orbit gives controllers at the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, several weeks –even more, if the perigee continues to get higher– to restore communication with Phobos-Grunt, allowing for the uploading of new commands. But, even if control is restored, a flight to Mars and Phobos will not be possible after Monday, November 21st, Lisov explained. Although the Fregat stage is loaded with fuel, to reach Mars, given Grunt’s orbit around Earth and the alignment between Earth and Mars after Monday, would require a higher change in velocity –what propulsion specialists call delta v – than the Fregat is capable of producing.

A Consolation Prize

While cautioning that the idea of sending Phobos-Grunt somewhere other than Phobos falls into the realm of wishful thinking, Lisov urged that efforts to reconnect with the spacecraft continue in full force as long as the craft is in space. Despite several failures of lunar missions, the former Soviet space program did succeed in returning samples from the lunar surface to Earth in the 1970s. Thus, re-purposing the current mission as “Luna-Grunt” or something of that nature is not likely to have the same appeal as Phobos-Grunt has among Russians. Nor could the Grunt landing craft, designed to scoop a surface sample into a capsule that would return to Earth, even set down on the lunar surface. But other components of the science payload might be useful. Though built to observe Mars,China’s Yinghuo-1 orbiter might be able to do something interesting from lunar orbit. Instruments that were to remain on the Phobosian surface might be useful as well.

Then, there is the issue of avoiding reentry. Experts at Roscosmos are confident that the many tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine in Grunt’s fuel tanks will burn up high in the atmosphere if the probe reenters. But people around the planet are scared, and thus might prefer that the fuel be used, even for a one-way mission with undefined science objectives. More importantly, achieving in a partial victory by sending the spacecraft anywhere but back to Earth could give rise to an Apollo 13-like milieu that might reinvigorate the Russian planetary program.

Millions of Tiny Passengers

The Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) capsule, on board the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Credit:The Planetary Society

As I’ve discussed in a previous update, to be useful scientifically, the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) rides inside the capsule that was designed to return the Phobosian sample to Earth. The point of the experiment is to test the effects of the space environment on several different types of organisms. Because the Moon orbits Earth far outside the Van Allen radiation belts, the radiation received per time by organisms on lunar flights is the same as that received during flights to Mars. If the capsule could be sent into lunar orbit, our millions of passengers would be like organisms traveling inside a meteoroid from Mars. Then perhaps some future mission could recover the capsule some day, and we could study the organisms, as we planned to do upon their return from Phobos.

A Possible Asteroid Mission

Lisov also speculated about sending the Grunt spacecraft to an asteroid instead of the Moon. Various asteroids travel fairly close to Earth, and it’s plausible that a Grunt probe revived after November 21 would have enough delta v to reach one of them. Unlike Earth’s Moon, whose gravity the Grunt lander was not designed to withstand, many asteroids are small. Theoretically, Grunt’s lander could set down on any celestial body with a gravitational force similar to that of Phobos. If any such asteroid candidate exists –and this is a big if– the ascent engine, designed to propel the Grunt return capsule back to Earth might be utilized to deliver a sample of the asteroid, along with the LIFE experiment.