Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff


In just over 3 weeks’ time, Russia plans to launch a bold mission to Mars whose objective, if successful , is to land on the Martian Moon Phobos and return a cargo of precious soil samples back to Earth about three years later.

The purpose is to determine the origin and evolution of Phobos and how that relates to Mars and the evolution of the solar system.

Liftoff of the Phobos-Grunt space probe will end a nearly two decade long hiatus in Russia’s exploration of the Red Planet following the failed Mars 96 mission and is currently scheduled to head to space just weeks prior to this year’s other Mars mission – namely NASA’s next Mars rover, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

Blastoff of Phobos-Grunt may come as early as around Nov. 5 to Nov. 8 atop a Russian Zenit 3-F rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch window extends until about Nov. 25. Elements of the spacecraft are undergoing final prelaunch testing at Baikonur.

Flight version of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft during assembly in preparation for critical testing in thermal and vacuum chamber at NITs RKP facility closely imitating harsh conditions of the real space flight. Credit: NPO Lovochkin

Baikonur is the same location from which Russian manned Soyuz rockets lift off for the International Space Station. Just like NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the mission was originally intended for a 2009 launch but was prudently delayed to fix a number of technical problems.

“November will see the launch of the Phobos-Grunt interplanetary automatic research station aimed at delivering samples of the Martian natural satellite’s soil to Earth’” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, speaking recently at a session of the State Duma according to the Voice of Russia, a Russian government news agency.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

The spacecraft will reach the vicinity of Mars after an 11 month interplanetary cruise around October 2012. Following several months of orbital science investigations of Mars and its two moons and searching for a safe landing site, Phobos-Grunt will attempt history’s first ever touchdown on Phobos. It will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the surface of the tiny moon and collect up to 200 grams of soil and rocks with a robotic arm and drill.

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft prepares for testing inside the vacuum chamber. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

After about a year of surface operations, the loaded return vehicle will blast off from Phobos and arrive back at Earth around August 2014. These would be the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russia’s Luna 24 in 1976.

“The way back will take between nine and 11 months, after which the return capsule will enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 12 kilometers per second. The capsule has neither parachute nor radio communication and will break its speed thanks to its conical shape,” said chief spacecraft constructor Maksim Martynov according to a report from the Russia Today news agency. He added that there are two soil collection manipulators on the lander because of uncertainties in the characteristics of Phobos soil.

Phobos-Grunt was built by NPO Lavochkin and consists of a cruise stage, orbiter/lander, ascent vehicle, and Earth return vehicle.

The spacecraft weighs nearly 12,000 kg and is equipped with a sophisticated 50 kg international science payload, in particular from France and CNES, the French Space Agency.

Also tucked aboard is the Yinghou-1 microsatellite supplied by China. The 110 kg Yinghou-1 is China’s first probe to launch to Mars and will study the Red Planet’s magnetic and gravity fields and surface environment from orbit for about 1 year.

“It will be the first time such research [at Mars] will be done by two spacecraft simultaneously. The research will help understand how the erosion of Mars’ atmosphere happens,” said Professor Lev Zelyony from the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, according to Russia Today.

Phobos-Grunt mission scenario. Credit: CNES
Phobos seen by Mars Express. Credit: ESA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars


Assembly of the powerful Atlas V booster that will rocket NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover to Mars is nearly complete. The Atlas V is taking shape inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The rocket is built by United Launch Alliance under contract to NASA as part of NASA’s Launch Services Program to loft science satellites on expendable rockets.

At Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, workers guide an overhead crane as it lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). Once in position, it will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The Atlas V configuration for Curiosity is similar to the one used for Juno except that it employs one less solid rocket motor in a designation known as Atlas 541.

4 indicates a total of four solid rocket motors are attached to the base of the first stage vs. five solids for Juno. 5 indicates a five meter diameter payload fairing. 1 indicates use of a single engine Centaur upper stage.

Blastoff of Curiosity remains on schedule for Nov. 25, 2011, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. The launch window for a favorable orbital alignment to Mars remains open until Dec. 18 after which the mission would face a 26 month delay at a cost likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Curiosity is set to touchdown on Mars at Gale Crater between August 6 & August 20, 2012. The compact car sized rover is equipped with 10 science instruments that will search for signs of habitats that could potentially support martian microbial life, past or present if it ever existed.

At the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V is in position in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). It then will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. The Atlas V is slated to launch NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission - the compact car-sized Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA
With a unique view taken from inside Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, an overhead crane lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. Once in position in the VIF it will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. NASA/Jim Grossmann
Workers guide an overhead crane as it lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). NASA/Jim Grossmann
An overhead crane lifts the Centaur upper stage for the Atlas V. NASA/Jim Grossmann
The final solid rocket motor (SRM) hangs in an upright position for mating to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA/Jim Grossmann
A crane lifts the 106.5-foot-long first stage of the Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission through the open door of the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Meanwhile NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover is nearing 8 continuous years of Exploration and Discovery around the Meridiani Planum region of the Red Planet.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars RoverNASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

JPL’s ‘Muscle Car’ – MSL – Takes Center Stage

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA is experiencing what could be dubbed a “summer of planetary exploration.” With the Juno mission to Jupiter on its way as of Aug. 5, NASA is prepping not one but two more missions – this time to terrestrial bodies – specifically the Moon and Mars.

On Sept. 8 NASA is planning to launch GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory). This mirror image spacecraft consists of two elements that will fly in tandem with one another and scan the Moon from its core to its crust. This mission will serve to expand our understanding of the mechanics of how terrestrial bodies are formed. GRAIL will provide the most accurate gravitational map of the Moon to date.

The aeroshell that will cover both the MSL rover and its jetpack landing system. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

When it comes to upcoming projects that have “celebrity” status – few can compete with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or Curiosity. The six-wheeled rover was part of a media event Friday Aug. 12 that included the “Sky-Crane” jetpack that is hoped will safely deliver the car-sized rover the Martian surface. Also on display was the back half of the rover’s aeroshell which will keep the robot safe as in enters the red planet’s atmosphere.

Numerous engineers were available for interview, one expert on hand to explain the intricacies of how Curiosity works was the Rover Integration Lead on the project, Peter Illsley.

One fascinating aspect of MSL is how the rover will land. As it pops free of the aeroshell, a jet pack will conduct a powered descent to Mars’ surface. From there the rover will be lowered to the ground via wires, making Curiosity look like an alien spider descending from its web. Once the rover makes contact with the ground, the wires will be severed and the “Sky-Crane” will fly off to conduct a controlled crash. Ben Thoma, the mechanical lead on this aspect of the project, described how he felt about what it is like to work on MSL.

MSL is slated to launch this November atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 541 rocket. If everything goes according to plan the rover will begin exploring Mars’ Gale Crater for a period of approximately two years. In every way Curiosity is an upgraded, super-charged version of the rovers that have preceded her. The Pathfinder rover tested out many of the concepts that led to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity and now MSL has incorporated lessons learned to take more robust scientific explorations of the Martian surface.

The "Sky-Crane" jetpack that will be used to slowly lower the MSL rover to the Martian surface. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Mars Science Lab Rover Will Land in Gale Crater


It’s official: the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will be landing Gale Crater on Mars. Scientists announced the final decision at a special event at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Friday morning. Comparing the terrain to an enticing bowl of layered Neopolitan ice cream, the science team announced the rover will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside Gale Crater.

“The science at Gale is going to be amazing and it will be a beautiful place to visit,” said Dawn Sumner, a geologist with the MSL team.

MSL is scheduled to launch in November 2011 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and land in August 2012. Curiosity is twice as long and more than five times as heavy as previous the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rover will study whether the landing region at Gale crater had favorable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

News had leaked out a few weeks ago that Gale was the favored site, but scientists today explained what made Gale stand out among the four final candidates, which each offered their own delicious “flavor,” making the decision a difficult one.

NASA has selected Gale crater as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“When it comes down to four landing sites, it comes down to what feels right,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist. “We as a science team, as a community, we got together and in the end we picked the one that felt best. Why? Here, we’ve got mountain of rocks, taller than Mount Whitney. It looks like Hawaii; it’s not a tall spire, but a broad mound. So we can actually climb up this mountain with the rover. That alone justifies sending the spacecraft there. It turns out, though, the most attractive science sites are at the base of the mountain. We can address the principle goals of the things the Mars community would like answers to.”

NASA’s strategy for Mars has been to “follow the water,” since we know that wherever there is water on Earth, there is life. Scientists are hedging their bets on Mars that wherever liquid water once flowed would be the best places to look for evidence of past habitability.

Gale has that going for it.

Gale Crater stratigraphy. Iimage courtesy Matt Golombek.

The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.

“It’s a huge crater sitting in a very low-elevation position on Mars, and we all know that water runs downhill,” Grotzinger said. “In terms of the total vertical profile exposed and the low elevation, Gale offers attractions similar to Mars’ famous Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system.”

The scientists emphasized that MSL is not a life detection mission, as it can’t look for fossils. But it can detect organic carbon, which can tell the early environmental story of Mars, found in the sediments within rocks.

Gale Crater crater spans 154 kilometers (96 miles) in diameter and is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The mound in the center rises 5 km (3 miles) height and the Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits.

The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.

About the size of a Mini-Cooper, Curiosity has 17 cameras and a full color video camera. The mission should offer incredible vistas that will likely wow the public, beginning with the landing, as Curiosity will take a full color, high definition movie as it descends on the “Sky Crane” landing system.

Anyone else ready for this mission to get going?

Landing Site for Next Mars Rover Narrowed to Two


Although a rumor came out about a week and a half ago that Gale Crater was the scientists’ preferred landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory, officially NASA says the finalists are now down to two: Gale and Eberswalde craters. The final selection will likely be made sometime this month, no earlier than July 11. As of now, MSL, a.k.a Curiosity scheduled to head to Mars during a Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011 launch window.

Gale Crater contains ancient lakebed deposits and sitting in the middle of the crater is an enticing 5-kilometer-tall mound of rock, stacked with layers. This could provide the rover a study a variety of environments that produced clay deposits near the mountain’s base to later environments that produced sulfate deposits partway up the slope.

Eberswalde is the site of what scientists think is a former river delta, where organic materials could be waiting to be analyzed. NASA says that as a clay-bearing site where a river once flowed into a lake, Eberswalde crater offers a chance to use knowledge that oil industry geologists have accumulated about where in a delta to look for any concentrations of carbon chemistry, a crucial ingredient for life.
Officially out of the running are Mawrth Vallis and Holden Crater, the other two finalist sites.

The spacecraft will arrive at Mars in August 2012, and land via its unusual “sky crane” landing system. (See a video of it here.) Researchers will use the rover’s 10 science instruments for at least two years to investigate whether the landing area has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

Source: NASA

Gale Crater Reported Front-Runner for MSL Landing Site

A 150-kilometer-wide hollow on Mars named Gale Crater has emerged as the front-runner for the potential landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which will head to Mars this fall. Nature News and the Planetary Society Blog report that following a meeting of project scientists last month, Gale came out on top of four different locations as the preferred destination for the next Mars rover. However, the final decision has not been made or announced, and NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler has the final word. He is expected to make the final decision on Friday with a formal announcement of the site to follow next week.


According to planetary scientist Matt Golombek, who was part of the selection committee, Gale Crater has a high diversity of geologic materials with different compositions, created under different conditions. Most interesting is evidence of different minerals arranged in stratigraphical context. “Stratigraphy records multiple early Mars environments in sequential order,” Golombek said at a teleconference for Solar System Ambassadors and Solar System Educators earlier this year. “Gale is characteristic of a family of craters that were filled, buried and exhumed, and will provide insights into an important Martian process.”

Gale Crater stratigraphy. Image courtesy Matt Golombek.

The actual landing ellipse is a smooth area with few craters, which is a great and safe place for landing. But the MSL rover – which is the size of a small car – could then take a few 100 sols and head out for more interesting terrain where the sedimentary strata is deposited. There’s a giant 5-kilometer high hill in the middle of the crater, and the rover could traverse up through the lower most layers.

The flythough video of Gale Crater, top, was put together by UnmannedSpaceflight‘s Doug Ellison, who used a mix of HRSC, CTX and HiRISE elevation models, combined with a pair of possible traverse paths for MSL.

The final four landing sites for MSL. Image courtesy Matt Golombek.

The three other choices also have their good points. All the different landing site choices lie between 30 degrees latitude north and 30 degrees south with low elevations – which is a good thing when trying to land on Mars, Golombek said, because that gives you more of Mars’ thin atmosphere to work with. “All the sites are scientifically rich and safe for landing, with small differences between them,” Golombek said.

Eberswalde Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL

Eberswalde Crater has interesting, rough terrain with flow features that are “clear evidence for a river that entered into a standing body of water at sometime into the past on Mars,” Golombek said. “There’s not much disagreement in science community that this is a ancient delta on Mars.”

This region would provide geologic evidence for how the minerals were deposited and evidence for clay minerals.

“Clays are trappers and preservers of biogenic materials, so going to places where these minerals were deposited in calm water is very enticing,” Golombek said.

Holden Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL

Holden Crater is the smoothest and flattest of the four choices. Southeast of the landing ellipse is an area of minerals that look enticing.

“There are mega breccias – rocks that were thrown up in giant impacts in the earliest days of Mars, so we could study those as well at Holden Crater,” Golombek. “But we’d have to drive pretty far to get there. There are also deposits that were certainly deposited in lake or a relatively quiet fluvial setting.”

Mawrth Vallis. Credit: NASA/JPL

Mawrth Vallis holds complex mineralogy and has some of the oldest and longest sequence of rocks among the four sites and has phyllosilicate-bearing stratigraphy within the landing ellipse. Phyllosilicates, or sheet silicates, are an important group of minerals that includes water-bearing and clay minerals and are an important constituent of sedimentary rocks, which can tell the scientists much about Mars’ past.

Golombek praised the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission for providing a extraordinary amount of data to allow the science team to make the best choice.

“The amount of data we have beforehand is unprecedented in Mars exploration,” he said, “with HiRISE(High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera) images at 25 cm per pixel, so we can see one meter-size boulders directly on the surface and we have almost complete coverage of the landing ellipses. CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) provides visible and near infrared data to show minearology. The coverage we have is just spectacular.”

Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida

Check out this way cool time-lapse movie of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as its being packed up for her trip to Florida.

The video covers a 4 day period from June 13 to 17 and is condensed to just 1 minute. Watch the JPL engineers and technicians prepare Curiosity and the descent stage for shipping to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and place it inside a large protective shipping container. Continue reading “Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida”

Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth


Just over a year from now, NASA’s Curiosity rover should be driving across fascinating new landscapes on the surface of Mars if all goes well. Curiosity is NASA next Mars rover – the Mars Science Laboratory – and is targeted to launch during a three week window that extends from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla..

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., engineering specialists have been putting Curiosity through the final phase of mobility tests to check out the driving capability, robotic arm movements and sample collection maneuvers that the robot will carry out while traversing the landing site after plummeting through the Martian atmosphere in August 2012.

Take a good look at this album of newly released images from JPL showing Curiosity from the front and sides, maneuvering all six wheels, climbing obstacles and flexing the robotic arm and turret for science sample collection activities as it will do while exploring the red planet’s surface.

Mars Rover Curiosity's Arm Held High

Curiosity is following in the footsteps of the legendary Spirit and Opportunity rovers which landed on opposite side of Mars in 2004.

“The rover and descent stage will be delivered to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) later in June,” Guy Webster, public affairs officer at JPL, told me. An Air Force C-17 transport plane has already delivered the heat shield, back shell and cruise stage on May 12, 2011.

“The testing remaining in California is with engineering models and many operational readiness tests,” Webster elaborated. “Lots of testing remains to be done on the flight system at KSC, including checkouts after shipping, a system test, a fit check with the RTG, tests during final stacking.”

Mars Rover Curiosity, Turning in Place during mobility testin. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The three meter long rover will explore new terrain that will hopefully provide clues as to whether Mars harbored environmental conditions that may have been favorable to the formation of microbial life beyond Earth and preserved evidence of whether left ever existed in the past and continued through dramatic alterations in Mars history.

NASA is evaluating a list of four potential landing sites that will offer the highest science return and the best chance of finding a potentially habitable zone in a previously unexplored site on the red planet.

Mars Rover Curiosity Raising Turret

Mars Rover Curiosity, Left Side View
Mars Rover Curiosity with Wheel on Ramp
Mars Rover Curiosity, Right Side View

Mars Science Lab Backshell Damaged (Updated)


UPDATE: According to JPL’s Scott Maxwell on Twitter, the aeroshell was not damaged during the improper lifting, which is good news, as there should be no impact to the launch schedule.

The backshell for the Mars Science Laboratory was damaged last week at Kennedy Space Center when it was lifted improperly, according to Aviation Week. Engineers are now examining the backshell to determine the nature of the damage and how serious it is. There is no word yet on whether this could impact the launch of the Curiosity rover, which is currently set for November 25 of this year. The launch window extends to December 18, but after that the mission would have to wait about 26 months for the next favorable launch window.

An agency spokesman was quoted as saying the damage to the backshell did not appear to be serious. An Air Force C-17 carrying the backshell, cruise stage and heat shield arrived at Kennedy Space Center on May 12, while the rover and its unique the descent stage scheduled to arrive in June. The accident apparently involved the backshell being lifted with a crane in the wrong attitude, placing out-of-specification strain on clamps holding it together.

We’ll keep you posted.

Source: Aviation Week, h/t Stu Atkinson

More Evidence of Liquid Erosion on Mars?



Terby Crater, a 170-km-wide (100-mile-wide) crater located on the northern edge of the vast Hellas Planitia basin in Mars’ southern hemisphere, is edged by variable-toned layers of sedimentary rock – possibly laid down over millennia of submersion beneath standing water. This image (false-color) from the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a portion of Terby’s northern wall with what clearly looks like liquid-formed gullies slicing through the rock layers, branching from the upper levels into a main channel that flows downward, depositing a fan of material at the wall’s base.

But, looks can be deceiving…


Terby Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dry processes – especially on Mars, where large regions have been bone-dry for many millions of years – can often create the same effects on the landscape as those caused by running water. Windblown Martian sand and repetitive dry landslides can etch rock in much the same way as liquid water, given enough time. But the feature seen above in Terby seem to planetary scientists to be most likely the result of liquid erosion… especially considering that the sedimentary layers themselves seem to contain clay materials, which only form in the presence of liquid water. Is it possible that some water existed beneath Mars’ surface long after the planet’s surface dried out? Or that it’s still there? Only future exploration will tell for sure.

“While formation by liquid water is one of the proposed mechanisms for gully formation on Mars, there are others, such as gravity-driven mass-wasting (like a landslide) that don’t require the presence of liquid water. This is still an open question that scientists are actively pursuing.”

– Nicole Baugh, HiRISE Targeting Specialist

Terby Crater was once on the short list of potential landing sites for the new Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) rover but has since been removed from consideration. Still, it may one day be visited by a future robotic mission and have its gullies further explored from ground level.

Click here to see the original image on the HiRISE site.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona