Perseverance has Collected its First Sample of Mars and Prepared it for Return to Earth… Eventually

It’s another first for NASA.

In early September, the Perseverance rover successfully used its robotic arm and drill to drill into a rock and extract a sample. It extracted a rock core about 6 cm (2 in) long and placed it inside a sealed tube. This is the first time a robotic spacecraft has collected a sample from another planet destined for a return to Earth on a separate spacecraft.

Now we wait for the eventual return of the sample to Earth.

Continue reading “Perseverance has Collected its First Sample of Mars and Prepared it for Return to Earth… Eventually”

Perseverance has Started Driving on Mars

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. Over the next two years of its primary mission, this robotic mission will carry on in the search for past life on Mars, obtaining soil and rock drill samples that will be returned to Earth someday for analysis. And as of March 4th, the rover conducted its first drive, covering 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across the Martian landscape.

Continue reading “Perseverance has Started Driving on Mars”

Water Shaped Features on Mars Much Earlier Than Previously Believed

In two days (on Thursday, Feb. 18th, 2021), NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Mars. As the latest robotic mission in the Mars Exploration Program (MEP), Perseverance will follow in the footsteps of its sister mission, Curiosity. Just in time for its arrival, research conducted at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has shown that Mars’ surface was shaped by flowing water several million years earlier than previously thought.

Continue reading “Water Shaped Features on Mars Much Earlier Than Previously Believed”

Bringing Mars To Earth. The Plans For a Mars Sample Return Mission

One of the great accomplishments of the Apollo missions was to bring home hundreds of kilograms of lunar rock. Suddenly, geologists had a lifetime’s worth of lunar samples captured from several different spots across the Moon. These rocks and dust have been under continuous analysis since the Apollo 11 astronauts came home over 50 years ago.

Continue reading “Bringing Mars To Earth. The Plans For a Mars Sample Return Mission”

Samples From Mars Could Hitch A Ride To Earth In This Box

Could this be as surprising as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates? What you’re looking at here is a container that could one day contain samples of Mars. Yup, even though a “sample return” mission is still years away, the European Space Agency is already designing a container so that when the time comes, they’ll be ready for the trip.

This 11-pound (five kilogram) container absolutely needs to keep whatever is inside protected and at a constant temperature of 14 Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) as it journeys from the Martian surface to Earth, which takes several months at the least. And the journey won’t be an easy one, ESA says:

“First, the sample container must be landed on Mars, along with a rover to retrieve a cache of samples carefully selected by a previous mission, according to current mission scenarios,” the agency stated.

A Mars sample return mission is still quite a ways away. Credit: European Space Agency
A Mars sample return mission is still quite a ways away. Credit: European Space Agency

“Then, once filled, it will be launched back up to Mars orbit. There it will remain for several days until a rendezvous spacecraft captures it … Before being returned to Earth, the container will be enclosed in another larger bio-sealed vessel to ensure perfect containment of any returned martian material. This container will then be returned to Earth for a high-speed entry.”

Why not use a parachute? Well, if the samples contain life it would be awkward if the parachute malfunctioned and the capsule scattered stuff all over Earth. That’s why it’s designed for a crash landing; it can in fact withstand forces of at least 400 times the force of gravity, tests of the capsule have revealed.

The prime contractor for this project was French company Mecano I&D. ESA emphasizes this is just a proof of concept so far, and that further refinements are expected. Plus, this little machine needs a ride to and from Mars. When do you think that will happen, and how?

Source: European Space Agency

Curiosity Gets a Sister – What Should She Do ? Scientists Speak

Image caption: Seeing Double – Future Martian Sisters. NASA just announced plans to build and launch a new Mars science robotic rover in 2020 based on the design of the tremendously successful Curiosity rover which touched down safely inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. This mosaic illustrates an imaginary Red Planet get-together of Curiosity and her yet to be constructed Martian sister. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer

Curiosity will apparently get a sister after all and she’ll be born in 2020 – rising from the ashes of a near death experience.

The good news concerning approval of a future NASA Mars rover was announced this week by John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ, at the 2012 annual meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) held in San Francisco.

What should Curiosity’s younger sister do? There are a multitude of great ideas, but a paucity of money in these very tough budget times – foremost among them is to gather and return the first ever Martian soil samples to Earth. What should the science goals be especially with regards to sample cache/return?

So, I asked these questions to Grunsfeld and leading Mars scientists, including Steve Squyres, Ray Arvidson and Jim Bell, the science team and camera leaders of NASA’s wildly successful Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). Opportunity is nearing the 9th anniversary of her Red Planet touchdown – and is exploring the most scientifically bountiful terrain yet of her entire mission at this very moment.

The design for the new Mars rover, let’s call it MSL 2, will be largely based on NASA’s hugely successful Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover and the breathtaking rocket powered ‘Sky Crane’ landing architecture she so elegantly employed for touchdown barely 4 months ago on Aug. 6, 2012.

Grunsfeld and the researchers weighed in to Universe Today with their thoughts on this – “Will the 2020 Mars rover be focused on astrobiology and the search for life? Or, other goals like sample return or future human visits?”

“That question will ultimately be determined by the Science Definition Team,” Grunsfeld told me. “Historically the driving question behind our Mars exploration has been ‘are we alone in the universe?’ that includes searching for signs of conditions supportive of past and/or present life on Mars.”

Steve Squyres, of Cornell University in New York, says that “sample return is the next logical step” in Mars exploration.

“Simple… it should collect and cache a well-chosen set of samples for eventual return to Earth,” Squyres told me. “Doing so was the clear top priority of the recent planetary decadal survey.”

Squyres led the planetary decadel survey for the National Research Council (NRC) and is the scientific Principal Investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity MER rovers.

Image caption: Artists Concept for Mars Sample Return mission. Credit: NASA

“The recently announced 2020 rover has the potential to be directly responsive to the recommendations of the recent planetary decadal survey. The highest priority large mission identified by the Mars community, and indeed by the broader planetary community, in the decadal was a rover that would collect and cache a suite of samples for eventual return to Earth. The 2020 rover, which will be based on the highly capable MSL design, clearly can have that capability if it is appropriately equipped,” Squyres elaborated.

“The National Research Council planetary decadal survey documented the US planetary science community’s consensus views on future priorities for planetary exploration. The 2020 rover mission will be consistent with those priorities only if it collects and caches a suite of samples for eventual return to Earth,” Squyres told Universe Today.

Although retrieving and returning pristine samples from the Red Planet’s surface has long been the top priority for many researchers like Squyres, that ambitious goal would also be expensive and likely require a sequential series of flights to accomplish. But it is doable and would enable scientists on Earth to utilize every one of the most powerful science instruments at their disposal to help solve the most fundamental mysteries of all, like; ‘How did the Solar System form’, ’Did life ever exist on Mars’ and “Are We Alone?’

Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis and deputy Principal Investigator for the MER rover, said this to Universe Today:

“For the 2020 rover I would frame the rationale and purpose as:

“*The surface area of Mars is equivalent to the surface area of Earth’s continents. The more we look the richer the geologic record relevant to ancient climatic conditions (e.g., the rover bed gravels found by MSL and the new clay hunting grounds Opportunity is exploring). Thus another MSL class rover and payload to a new site of paleo-environmental interest would be wonderful. Imagine trying to unravel Earth’s history by exploring three locations (MER+MSL) on the continents,” Arvidson informed me.

“*Given the rich, complex nature of the geologic record another MSL class rover exploring a new location will definitely help us narrow down the best place to go for sample return.”

“*For the 2020 rover include some engineering tests that will lead to a lower risk sample return mission. This could be what measurements to do to decide on which samples to acquire and keep, could be how to drill, handle, and cache, etc.”

Jim Bell, of Arizona State University and team leader for the MER Pancam cameras also feels that sample return is the top priority.

“I think it’s important that the 2020 rover adhere to the planetary science community’s stated goals for the next flagship-class mission to Mars–that it make significant progress towards a robotic Mars sample return’” Bell told me. “This was the judgment of the recent National Academy of Science’s Planetary Decadal Survey–representing the consensus of more than 1600 professional planetary scientists worldwide. The simplest way to implement that would be to make the 2020 rover a caching rover–able to store well-selected samples for potential later return to Earth by another mission.”

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to send a new MSL-class rover to Mars, and speaking with my Planetary Society President hat on, I think the public will be really excited to follow another mission as well.”

“Mars exploration is incredibly popular, and represents the best aspects of American engineering, innovation, and scientific exploration. That mission, and the continuing discoveries from Curiosity, Opportunity, and other missions, will help get us closer to answering age-old questions like, “are we alone?” Exciting!” Bell said.

By reutilizing the now proven MSL designs, NASA should be able to restrain and accurately estimate the development costs while simultaneously retiring a lot of the unknown risks associated with the construction and testing of MSL 1.

At the AGU briefing, Grunsfeld said that the 2020 rover will cost about $1.5 Billion, plus or minus $200 million, and fits within the president’s NASA budget request for 2013 and going forward. Curiosity cost about $2.5 Billion over the course of a 10 year development span.

“This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity,” says Grunsfeld.

The exact nature and actual mass of the 2020 rover’s science instruments will be decided by the Science Definition Team and also depends on the actual budget allocation received by NASA.

The surprising decision to fund MSL 2 comes despite the Obama Administrations cancellation earlier this year of NASA’s participation in a pair of missions to Mars, jointly proposed with the European Space Agency (ESA) – the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter and the 2018 ExoMars rover. ESA has now forged a new alliance with Russia to carry out Mars exploration. NASA will fund instruments on both spacecraft.

In February 2012, the Obama Administration cut the planetary science budget by 20% and NASA was forced to withdrawn from the two joint Mars missions with ESA – as outlined earlier here and here.

So, I asked Grunsfeld, “Will the 2020 mission be international with participation by ESA or Roscosmos?”

“Yes, it will be international. Details will be worked out in the planning phase,” Grunsfeld replied.

Image caption: Artist concept shows Earth return capsule with Red planet samples during rendezvous in Mars orbit. Credit: NASA

The 2020 launch window is next most favorable window after 2018 and would permit a higher weight of landed science instruments compared to Curiosity.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who represents the area that is home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and has worked to reverse the budget cuts, applauded the announcement of “the new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020.”

Schiff issued a statement that said, “While a 2020 launch would be favorable due to the alignment of Earth and Mars, a launch in 2018 would be even more advantageous as it would allow for an even greater payload to be launched to Mars. I will be working with NASA, the White House and my colleagues in Congress to see whether advancing the launch date is possible and what it would entail.”

Now it’s up to NASA to formulate a well defined and realistic plan that the politicians will support. The specific payload and science instruments for the 2020 mission will be openly competed following established processes for instrument selection. A science definition team will be appointed to outline the scientific objectives for the mission.

Stay tuned here for continuing updates on Curiosity and the future of Mars exploration and more.

** Here is your chance to do something positive & simple – and ‘Save Our Science’!

Cast your vote for Curiosity as TIME magazine Person of the Year. Vote now and avoid the long lines at the polling booth – before it’s too late. You only have until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 12 to cast your vote online.

Ken Kremer

Learn more about Curiosity’s groundbreaking discoveries and NASA missions at my upcoming free presentation for the general public at Princeton University.

Dec 11: Free Public lecture titled “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars (in 3 D)” and more including the Space Shuttle, Orion and SpaceX by Ken Kremer at Princeton University and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) in Princeton, NJ at 8 PM – Princeton U campus at Peyton Hall, Astrophysics Dept. Students welcome.

Image Caption: Panoramic mosaic shows gorgeous Glenelg terrain where Curiosity is now touring in search of first rocks to drill into and sample. The eroded rim of Gale crater and base of Mount Sharp seen in the distance. This is a cropped version of the wider mosaic as assembled from 75 images acquired by the Mastcam 100 camera on Sol 64 in October 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Weekly Space Hangout – Sept. 27, 2012

This was an action-packed episode of the Weekly Space Hangout. Lots of stories, very little time.

Participants: Mike Wall, Alan Boyle, Ian O’Neill, Nancy Atkinson, Jason Major

Host: Fraser Cain

Want to watch us record the show live? Point your browser at next week’s event page to put the recording right into your calendar.

Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?’


Atop a towering inferno of sparkling flames and billowing ash, Humankinds millennial long quest to ascertain “Are We Alone ?” soared skywards today (Nov. 26) with a sophisticated spaceship named ‘Curiosity’ – NASA’s newest, biggest and most up to date robotic surveyor that’s specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars, the most ‘Earth-like’ planet in our Solar System.

‘Mars Trek – Curiosity’s Search for Undiscovered Life’ zoomed to the heavens with today’s (Nov. 26) pulse pounding blastoff of NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars rover mounted atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity’s noble goal is to meticulously gather and sift through samples of Martian soil and rocks in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it – as well as clays and sulfate minerals that may preserve evidence of habitats and environments that could support the genesis of Martian microbial life forms, past or present.

The Atlas V booster carrying Curiosity to the Red Planet vaulted off the launch pad on 2 million pounds of thrust and put on a spectacular sky show for the throngs of spectators who journeyed to the Kennedy Space Center from across the globe, crowded around the Florida Space Coast’s beaches, waterways and roadways and came to witness firsthand the liftoff of the $2.5 Billion Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The car-sized rover, Curiosity, which has 10 science instruments designed to search for signs of life, including methane, and to help determine if this gas is from a biological or geological source. Credit: Ken Kremer

The car sized Curiosity rover is the most ambitious, important and far reaching science probe ever sent to the Red Planet – and the likes of which we have never seen or attempted before.

“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. “We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground… and see what we find.”

“’Ecstatic’ – in a word, NASA is Ecstatic. We have started a new Era in the Exploration of Mars with this mission – technologically and scientifically. MSL is enormous, the equivalent of 3 missions frankly.”

“We’re exactly where we want to be, moving fast and cruising to Mars.”

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

NASA is utilizing an unprecedented, rocket powered precision descent system to guide Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the Gale Crater landing site, with all six wheels deployed.

Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) wide. It is dominated by layered terrain and an enormous mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor which exhibits exposures of minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life.

“I hope we have more work than the scientists can actually handle. I expect them all to be overrun with data that they’ve never seen before.”

“The first images from the bottom of Gale Crater should be stunning. The public will see vistas we’ve never seen before. It will be like sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” said McCuistion.

Topography of Gale Crater - Curiosity Mars rover landing site
Color coding in this image of Gale Crater on Mars represents differences in elevation. The vertical difference from a low point inside the landing ellipse for NASA's Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (yellow dot) to a high point on the mountain inside the crater (red dot) is about 3 miles (5 kilometers). Credit: NASA

The 197 ft tall Atlas booster’s powerful liquid and solid fueled engines ignited precisely on time with a flash and thunderous roar that grew more intense as the expanding plume of smoke and fire trailed behind the rapidly ascending rockets tail.

The Atlas rockets first stage is comprised of twin Russian built RD-180 liquid fueled engines and four US built solid rocket motors.

The engines powered the accelerating climb to space and propelled the booster away from the US East Coast as it majestically arced over in between broken layers of clouds. The four solids jettisoned 1 minute and 55 seconds later. The liquid fueled core continued firing until its propellants were expended and dropped away at T plus four and one half minutes.

The hydrogen fueled Centaur second stage successfully fired twice and placed the probe on an Earth escape trajectory at 22,500 MPH.

The MSL spacecraft separates and heads on its way to Mars. Credit: NASA TV

The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the Centaur, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.

MSL spacecraft separation of the solar powered cruise stage stack from the Centaur upper stage occurred at T plus 44 minutes and was beautifully captured on a live NASA TV streaming video feed.

“Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it’s on its way to Mars,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California at the briefing. “I want to thank the launch team, United Launch Alliance, NASA’s Launch Services Program and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for their help getting MSL into space.”

Curiosity punches through Florida clouds on the way to Mars. Credit: Mike Deep/David Gonzales

“The launch vehicle has given us a first rate injection into our trajectory and we’re in cruise mode. The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.”

“I’m very happy.”

“Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks,” Theisinger added.

“We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface.”

Curiosity is a 900 kg (2000 pound) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots.

NASA was only given enough money to build 1 rover this time.

“We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars, and we couldn’t be happier,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the briefing. “I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA’s overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe.”

Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the Nov. 26 post-launch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), pose with model of Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times more than its predecessor’s science payloads.

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Mike Killian/Zero-G News

A drill and scoop located at the end of the robotic arm will gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. A laser will zap rocks to determine elemental composition.

“We are not a life detection mission.”

“It is important to distinguish that as an intermediate mission between the Mars Exploration Rovers, which was the search for water, and future missions, which may undertake life detection.”

“Our mission is about looking for ancient habitable environments – a time on Mars which is very different from the conditions on Mars today.”

“The promise of Mars Science Laboratory, assuming that all things behave nominally, is we can deliver to you a history of formerly, potentially habitable environments on Mars,” Grotzinger said at the briefing. “But the expectation that we’re going to find organic carbon, that’s the hope of Mars Science Laboratory. It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.”

Today’s liftoff was the culmination of about 10 years of efforts by the more than 250 science team members and the diligent work of thousands more researchers, engineers and technicians spread around numerous locations across the United States and NASA’s international partners including Canada, Germany, Russia, Spain and France.

“Scientists chose the site they wanted to go to for the first time in history, because of the precision engineering landing system. We are going to the very best place we could find, exactly where we want to go.”

“I can’t wait to get on the ground,” said Grotzinger.

John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology and Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Mars Trek – Curiosity Poised to Search for Signs of Life
Curiosity Rover ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Quantum Leap in Pursuit of Martian Microbial Life
Science Rich Gale Crater and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover in Glorious 3-D – Touchdown in a Habitable Zone
Curiosity Powered Up for Martian Voyage on Nov. 26 – Exclusive Message from Chief Engineer Rob Manning
NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life
Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth

Russian Mars Moon Sample Probe Poised to Soar atop Upgraded Rocket – Video


After an absence of almost two decades, Russia is at last on the cusp of resuming an ambitious agenda of interplanetary science missions on Tuesday Nov. 8 3:16 p.m. EST (Nov. 9, 00:16 a.m. Moscow Time) by taking aim at Mars and scooping up the first ever soil and rocks gathered from the mysterious moon Phobos. Russia’s space program was hampered for many years by funding woes after the breakup of the former Soviet Union and doubts stemming from earlier mission failures. The Russian science ramp up comes just as US space leadership fades significantly due to dire NASA budget cutbacks directed by Washington politicians.

Russia’s daring and highly risky Phobos-Grunt soil sampling robot to the battered Martian moon Phobos now sits poised at the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan atop a specially upgraded booster dubbed the “Zenit-2SB” rocket according to Alexey Kuznetsov, Head of the Roscosmos Press Office in an exclusive interveiw with Universe Today. Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency. Watch the awesome Mars mission animation in my article here. See Zenit Rocket rollout video and images below.

“The Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station will launch on November 9, 2011 at 00:26 a.m. Moscow time [Nov. 8, 3:36 p.m. EST],” Kuznetsov confirmed to Universe Today.

The Roscosmos video and photos here show the Zenit rocket rollout starting from Building 45 where the final prelaunch processing was conducted late last week mounting the nose cone holding the Phobos-Grunt and companion Yinghuo-1 spacecraft to the upgraded Fregat upper stage.

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station - lander. Credit: Roscosmos

If successful, Phobos Grunt will complete the Earth to Mars round trip voyage in some 34 months and the history making soil samples will plummet through the Earth’s atmosphere in August 2014 to waiting Russian military helicopters.

Following an 11 month interplanetary journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit and spend several months searching for a suitable landing site on Phobos. The probe is due to touchdown very gently on Phobos surface in Feb. 2013 using radar and precision thrusters accounting for the moon’s extremely weak gravity. After gathering samples with two robotic arms, the soil transferred to the Earth return capsule will take off in the ascent vehicle for the trip back home.

“The Zenit can launch spacecraft from Baikonur into LEO, MEO, HEO and elliptical near-Earth orbits (including GTO and geostationary orbit) and to escape trajectories as well,” Kuznetsov explained.

Zenit-2SB rocket rollout from Building 45 at Baikonur with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station. Credit: Roscosmos

The Zenit-2SB booster with Phobos-Grunt and the piggybacked Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter from China were rolled out horizontally by train on a railed transporter on Nov. 6, raised and erected vertically into launch position at Launch Pad 45 at Baikonur.

“The ‘Zenit-2SB’ rocket belongs to the rocket family using nontoxic fuel components – liquid oxygen and kerosene,” Kuznetsov elaborated. “The Zenit was manufactured by the A.M. Makarov Yuzhny Machine-Building Plant in Ukraine.”

“This “Zenit-2” rocket modification has significant improvements,” Kuznetsov told me. “The improvements include a new navigation system, a new generation on-board computer, and better performance by mass reduction and increase in thrust of the second stage engine.”

Zenit-2SB rocket rollout on train car to Baikonur launch pad with Phobos-Grunt sampling return mission to Mars and Phobos. Credit: Roscosmos

Likewise the upper stage was upgraded for the historic science flight.

“The Zenit’s Fregat upper stage has also been modified. The “Phobos Grunt” automatic interplanetary station cruise propulsion system was built onto the base of the “Fregat-SB” upper stage. Its main task is to insert the automatic interplanetary station onto the Mars flight path and accomplish the escape trajectory.”

“The “Phobos Grunt” automatic interplanetary station mission was constructed by the Russian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute in Moscow and the spacecraft was manufactured by NPO Lavochkin in Moscow,” Kuznetsov told me.

The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station is equipped with a powerful 50 kg payload of some 20 science instruments provided by a wide ranging team of international scientists and science institutions from Europe and Asia.

The audacious goal is to bring back up to 200 grams of pristine regolith and rocks that help unlock the mysteries of the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System

Zenit-2SB rocket rollout on train to launch pad at Baikonur with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt automatic interplanetary station. Credit: Roscosmos

Zenit-2SB rocket erected vertically to launch position at Baikonur launch pad with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars spacecraft. Credit: Roscosmos

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars and Phobos poised atop Zenit rocket at Pad 45 at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Kazakhstan. Liftoff set for November 9, 2011 at 00:26 a.m. Moscow time - Nov. 8, 3:36 p.m. EST. Credit: Roscosmos.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover has also arrived at her Florida launch pad awaiting Nov. 25 liftoff.

Join me in wishing all the best to Roscosmos and NASA for this duo of fabulous Mars missions in 2011 that will help unravel our place in the Universe – like never before!

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov 9 launch here:
Awesome Action Animation Depicts Russia’s Bold Robot Retriever to Mars moon Phobos
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff