At this very moment, eleven robotic missions are operating in orbit or on the surface of Mars, more than at any point during the past sixty years. These include the many orbiters surveying the Red Planet from orbit, the handful of landers and rovers, and one helicopter (Ingenuity) studying the surface. In the coming years, many more are expected, reflecting the growing number of nations participating in the exploration process. Once there, they will join in the ongoing search for clues about the planet’s formation, evolution, and possible evidence that life once existed there.
However, there’s also the mystery concerning the origin of Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two satellites. While scientists have long suspected that these two moons began as asteroids kicked from the Main Belt that were captured by Mars’ gravity, there is no scientific consensus on this point. This is the purpose of the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission currently under development by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which will explore both moons with the help of a Phobos rover provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the French National Center of Space Studies (CNES).
JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, is carving out a niche for itself in sample-return missions. Their Hayabusa mission was the first mission to sample an asteroid when it brought dust from the asteroid Itokawa to Earth in 2010. Then its successor, Hayabusa 2, brought back a sample from asteroid Ryugu in 2020.
Now JAXA has the Martian moon Phobos in its sights and will send a spacecraft to sample it as soon as 2024. The mission is called Martian Moons eXploration (MMX), and it’ll use a pneumatic vacuum device to collect its samples.
Story and Crash Zone Map updated 1 p.m. EST Jan 16
Today (Jan. 15) was the last day of life for Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars after a desperate two month race against time and all out attempts to save the daring spaceship by firing up a malfunctioning thruster essential to putting the stranded probe on a trajectory to the Red Planet, failed.
According to the Russian news agency Ria Novosti, the doomed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft apparently plunged into the southern Pacific Ocean today, (Jan. 15) at about 12:45 p.m. EST, 21:45 Moscow time [17:45 GMT] after a fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Phobos-Grunt fragments have crashed down in the Pacific Ocean,” Russia’s Defense Ministry official Alexei Zolotukhin told RIA Novosti. He added that the fragments fell 1,250 kilometers to the west of the Chilean island of Wellington.
Universe Today will monitor the developing situation and update this story as warranted. On Jan. 16 Roscosmos confirmed the demise of Phobos-Grunt at 12:45 p.m. EST in the Pacific Ocean – during its last orbit; #1097.
The demise of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was expected sometime today, (Jan 15) after a fiery and destructive fall back to Earth, said Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, in an official statement released early today before the crash.
Since the re-entry was uncontrolled, the exact time and location could not be precisely calculated beforehand.
The actual crash time of the 13,500 kg space probe was slightly earlier than predicted.
Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin had previously stated that perhaps 20 to 30 fragments weighing perhaps 400 pounds (180 kg) might survive and would fall harmlessly to Earth.
The spacecraft burst into a large quantity of pieces as it hit the atmosphere, heated up and broke apart. But the actual outcome of any possible fragments is not known at this time.
Shortly after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9, 2011, the probe became stuck in low Earth orbit after its MDU upper stage engines repeatedly failed to ignite and send the ship on a bold sample return mission to the tiny Martian Moon Phobos.
Phobos-Grunt was loaded with over 11,000 kg of toxic propellants, including dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide, that went unused due to the thruster malfunction and that were expected to be incinerated during the plunge to Earth.
Frictional drag forces from the Earth’s atmosphere had gradually lowered the ship’s orbit in the past two months to the point of no return after all attempts to fire the thrusters and raise the orbit utterly failed.
The audacious goal of Phobos-Grunt was to carry out history’s first ever landing on Phobos, retrieve 200 grams of soil and bring the treasured samples back to Earth for high powered analysis that could help unlock secrets to the formation of Mars, Phobos and the Solar System.
The Holy Grail of planetary science is to retrieve Martian soil samples – and scientists speculated that bits of the Red Planet could be intermixed with the soil of its mini moon Phobos, barely 15 miles in diameter.
The science return from Phobos-Grunt would have been first rate and outstanding.
It’s a sad end to Russia’s attempts to restart their long dormant interplanetary space science program.
The $165 mission was Russia’s first Mars launch in more than 15 years.
Roscosmos had stated that the Atlantic Ocean – to the west of Africa – was at the center of the predicted crash zone. But nothing was certain and the probe had the possibility to crash sooner, perhaps over the Pacific Ocean or South America or later over Africa, Europe or Russia.
Roscosmos had predicted the time of the plunge to Earth to be from 12:50 p.m. EST and 1:34 p.m. EST (1750 to 1834 GMT) or 21:50 to 22: 34 Moscow time on January 15. The last orbit carried the probe over the Pacific Ocean towards South America on a northeasterly heading.
Russia enlisted assistance from ESA and the US in a bid to establish contact with the probe to reorient itself and fire up its engines for a belated journey to the Red Planet. Other than extremely brief signals the efforts proved futile and today’s Pacific plunge is the unfortunate end result.
Hopefully the Russians will not give up in despair, but rather fix the flaws and launch an exciting new Mars mission.
NASA has had better luck with their Mars mission this season.
The Curiosity Mars Science Lab rover is precisely on course to the Red Planet following the Jan 11 firing of the cruise stage thrusters for the first of up to 6 Trajectory Correction Maneuvers – read the details here
Teams of Russian engineers are in a race against time to save the ambitious and unprecedented Phobos-Grunt sample return mission from crashing back to Earth following the post launch failure of the upper stage rocket firings essential to propel the probe onward to destination Mars and scooping up dirt and dust from the tiny moon Phobos.
Roscomos, the Russian Federal Space Agency says they have perhaps two weeks to salvage the spacecraft – now stuck in Earth orbit – before its batteries run out and its orbit would naturally decay leading to an ignominious and uncontrollable reentry and earthly demise. Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos Chief had initially indicated a survival time limited to only 2 days in a briefing to Russian media.
“I give them a good chance — better than even — of recovering the mission and making the Mars insertion burn in a day or two, said James Oberg, a renowned expert on Russian and US spaceflight in commentary to Universe Today.
But Oberg also told me that having such problems so early in the mission was not a good sign. It all depends on whether the root cause is related to a simple software patch or serious hardware difficulties.
Following yesterday’s eerie midnight blastoff of Phobos-Grunt at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time atop an upgraded Zenit- 2SB booster and the apparently flawless performance of the first and second stages, the situation turned decidedly negative some 5 hours later when the pre-planned ignition burns of the Fregat upper stage failed to ignite twice.
The 13,000 kg Phobos-Grunt (which means Phobos-Soil) spacecraft was to embark on an 11 month interplanetary cruise and arrive in the vicinity of Mars around October 2012, along with a piggybacked mini-satellite from China named Yinghuo-1, the nation’s first ever probe to orbit the Red Planet, and the Phobos-LIFE experiment from the Planetary Society.
“It has been a tough night for us because we could not detect the spacecraft [after the separation],” Vladimir Popovkin said according to the Ria Novosti Russian news agency. “Now we know its coordinates and we found out that the [probe’s] engine failed to start.”
“It is a complex trajectory, and the on-board computers could have simply failed to send a “switch on” command to the engine,” Popovkin added.
Fortunately, the engine ignition malfunction was one of the anticipated failure scenarios and a corrective action plan already exists for it – but only if it can be implemented to save the $163 million mission and Russian hopes to revive their long dormant interplanetary forays.
“But it’s an old old superstition that when leaving your house for a long voyage, if you trip on the door step, you better just lay down your suitcases and go back inside,” Oberg said.
“Seriously, on a mission so complex and innovative as this one is, with so much stuff that has to be done RIGHT the first time they’ve ever tried it, having this kind of error — even if it’s only a coding mishap — right at the start, is NOT a good omen about the quality of work on preparing the later steps,” Oberg warned.
The goal of the complicated and first of its-kind 3 year round trip mission is to deploy a lander to the surface of Phobos, grab up to 200 grams of pristine regolith and rocks, and then take off and sail back to Earth with the precious samples for analysis by the most scientifically advanced instruments available to humankind. Watch the detailed mission animation in my article here.
Another serious problem was a lengthy gap in tracking coverage and thus two way communications with the spacecraft which minimized and seriously delayed Russian controller’s ability to diagnose and correct the malfunction.
Roscosmos stated today that after two communications sessions all necessary parameters of the spacecrafts motion have been determined and they hoped to regain contact sometime Wednesday afternoon through a ground station at Baikonur and upload new software to orient the vehicle and commands for an engine firing at some point soon. Luckily the hydrazine filled propellant tank had not been jettisoned – or all would be lost.
It appears that the earliest day the Fregat engines can be fired is sometime Thursday. The Fregat would also journey all the way to Mars and conduct the critical braking maneuver to insert Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 into separate Mars orbits.
The engine ignition failure has left Phobos-Grunt stuck in an elliptical orbit ranging from about 207 by 347 kilometers and inclined 51 degrees. The engine firings would have placed the ship into a higher altitude elliptical orbit of 250 by 4150 km and then cruising to Mars.
The Russianspaceweb website reported that “the editor of this web site received a message from the director of Moscow-based Space Research Institute, IKI, Lev Zeleny, informing that tracking facilities of the US military provided significant help in establishing exact orbital parameters of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. This data was to be used during the previous night to send commands to the spacecraft as it was passing within range of ground control stations. Zeleny reassured that the mission team still had had “few days for reprogramming before the end of the Mars accessibility window for 2011.”
Alexey Kuznetsov, Head of the Roskosmos Press Office told me previously that, “The Phobos-Grunt launch window extends until November 25.” So theoretically, there is still some time to propel Phobos-Grunt to Mars but there are also many unknowns.
Russia has successfully launched the Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars aiming to return a soil sample from Phobos, the first time in history such a bold and complicated feat has been attempted.
The ambitious mission lifted off just past midnight at 00:16 Moscow time atop an upgraded version of the Zenit-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Phobos-Grunt is now in a parking orbit around Earth and further burns are required by the modified Fregat upper stage by 8:20 p.m. tonight to put the probe of course for Earth departure and an interplanetary cruise to the Red Planet. Watch for updates later.
The liftoff of the $163 million robotic spacecraft marks Russia’s first attempt to conduct an interplanetary mission in some 15 years since the launch failure of the Mars 96 probe back in 1996. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil.
The mission goal is to deploy a lander to Phobos and bring back up to 200 grams of pristine regolith and rocks from the surface of Phobos.
Also along for the ride is China’s first Mars mission named Yinghuo-1 (which means means Firefly-1) which will be jettisoned into Mars orbit as Phobos-Grunt inserts into a different orbit about Mars. Additionally, the Planetary Society’s Phobos LIFE biomodule is also on board.
The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt spacecraft should arrive in the vicinity of Mars around October 2012 after an 11 month interplanetary cruise. 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 in February 2013. It will conduct a comprehensive analysis of Phobos surface and gather up to 200 grams of soil and rocks with a pair of robotic arms and a scoop device.
The samples will be transferred by a long tube onto the return vehicle mounted atop the lander. By March 2013 the ascent vehicle will take off for the trip back back to Earth.
Phobos-Grunt is equipped with a 50 kg array of 20 sophisticated science instruments including lasers, spectrometers, cameras and a microscope provided by an international team of scientists and science institutions from across Europe and Asia.
The entire voyage will last just under 3 years with the capsule plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere in August 2014. These would represent the first macroscopic samples returned from another body in the solar system since Russia’s Luna 24 returned soil from the Moon back in 1976.
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.
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.
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.”
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
In less than 48 hours, Russia’s bold Phobos-Grunt mechanized probe will embark on a historic flight to haul humanities first ever soil samples back from the tiny Martian moon Phobos. Liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome remains on target for November 9 (Nov 8 US 3:16 p.m. EDT).
For an exquisite view of every step of this first-of-its-kind robot retriever, watch this spectacular action packed animation (below) outlining the entire 3 year round trip voyage. The simulation was produced by Roscosmos, Russia’s Federal Space Agency and the famous IKI Space Research Institute. It’s set to cool music – so don’t’ worry, you don’t need to understand Russian.
The highly detailed animation begins with the blastoff of the Zenit booster rocket and swiftly progresses through Earth orbit departure, Phobos-Grunt Mars orbit insertion, deployment of the piggybacked Yinghuo-1 (YH-1) mini satellite from China, Phobos-Grunt scientific reconnaissance of Phobos and search for a safe landing site, radar guided propulsive landing, robotic arm manipulation and soil sample collection and analysis, sample transfer to the Earth return capsule and departure, plummeting through Earth’s atmosphere and Russian helicopter retrieval of the precious cargo carrier.
Video Caption: Every step of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt soil retrieval mission. Credit: Roscosmos/IKI
Video Caption: On October 21, the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was uncrated and moved to assembly building 31 for fueling, final preflight processing and encapsulation in the nose cone. Credit: Roscosmos
Phobo-Grunt, Russia’s first interplanetary mission in nearly two decades, has now been encapsulated inside the payload fairing and sealed to the payload adapter for mating to the upper stage of the Zenit booster rocket that will propel the probe to Mars orbit and carry out history’s first ever landing on the petite Martian moon Phobos and eventually return pristine samples to Earth for high powered scientific analysis.
“Phobos-Grunt will launch on November 9, 2011 at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time [Nov. 8 3:16 p.m. EST],” said Alexey Kuznetsov, Head of the Roscosmos Press Office in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency, equivalent to NASA and ESA.
“The launch window extends until November 25.”
“At this moment we are preparing the “Zenit-2SB” launch vehicle, the cruise propulsion system and the “Phobos Grunt” automatic interplanetary station at the Baikonur Cosmodrome,” Kuznetzov told me. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil.
Yinghuo-1 follows closely on the heels of China’s stunning success in demonstrating the nation’s first ever docking in space between two Chinese spacecraft earlier this week on November 3.
Technicians completed the two vehicles enclosure inside the protective fairing at Building 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and have now transported the spaceships to Building 41 where the payload is now being stacked to the upgraded “Fregat-SB” upper stage atop the Zenit-2SB rocket.
The payload fairing protects the Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 spacecraft during the first few minutes of flight from the intense frictional heating and buildup of aerodynamic pressures. After the rocket soars through the discernable atmosphere the fairing splits in half and is jettisoned and falls back to Earth.
The nose cone sports a beautiful mission logo painted on the side of the fairing along with the logos of various Russian and International partner agencies and science institutes.
Propellants have already been loaded aboard the cruise stage, Phobos-Grunt lander and Earth return vehicle.
“The Phobos Grunt automatic interplanetary station was built, prepared and tested at NPO Lavochkin [near Moscow]. They were also responsible for inspection of the devices, instruments and systems integration,” Kuzntezov explained.
“Significant improvements and modifications and been made to both the “Fregat-SB” upper stage and the “Zenit-2SB” rocket,” said Kuznetzov.
Phobos-Grunt will blastoff from Launch Pad 45 at Baikonur,
Following an 11 month journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit in October 2012, spend several months investigating Phobos and then land around February 2013.
The goal is to snatch up to 200 grams of soil and rock from Phobos and fly them back to Earth in a small capsule set to plummet through the atmosphere in August 2014.
ESA, the European Space Agency, is assisting Russia determine a safe landing site by targeting their Mars Express Orbiter to collect high resolution images of Phobos. Look at 2 D and 3 D images and an animation here.
The regolith samples will help teach volumes about the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System. Scientists would be delighted if miniscule bits of Martian soil were mixed in with Phobos soil.
Phobos-Grunt , Earth’s next mission to Mars, is equipped with an advanced 50 kg payload array of some 20 science instruments.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover was also enclosed in her payload fairing a few days ago and is on course for liftoff on November 25.
Video Caption: Phobos and Jupiter in Conjunction – taken from Mars orbit !
A movie of the 1 June 2011 Phobos–Jupiter conjunction made by combining a sequence of 100 images of the encounter taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Mars Express is searching for safe landing zones on Phobos for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt lander blasting off on November 9. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
3 D images of Phobos-Jupiter conjuction below Update – Phobos-Grunt launch processing photo below
In just 7 days, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt sample return mission will blast off for Mars on November 9 on a daring mission to grab soil samples from the surface of the miniscule martian moon Phobos and return them back to Earth for analysis to give us breathtaking new insights into the formation and evolution of Mars, Phobos and our Solar System.
So, check out the amazing animation and 3 D stereo images of fish-like Phobos and banded Jupiter snapped by Europe’s Mars Express orbiter to get a bird’s eye feel for the battered terrain, inherent risks and outright beauty that’s in store for the Phobos -Grunt spaceship when it arrives in the Red Planet’s vicinity around October 2012. Whip out your red-cyan 3 D glasses – Now !
ESA’s Mars Express orbiter (MEX) was tasked to help Russia locate suitable and safe landing sites on Phobos’ pockmarked terrain. MEX was built by ESA, the European Space Agency and has been in Mars orbit since 2003.
To capture this impressive series of rare photos of Jupiter and Phobos in conjunction, Mars Express performed a special maneuver to observe an unusual alignment of Jupiter and Phobos on 1 June 2011.
Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) snapped a total of 104 images over 68 seconds when the distance from the spacecraft to Phobos was 11,389 km and the distance to Jupiter was 529 million km.
Enjoy the exquisite views of the bands of Jupiter and imagine exploring the deep pockets and mysterious grooves on Phobos – which may be a captured asteroid.
The camera was kept fixed on Jupiter, to ensure it remained static as Phobos passed in front and which afforded an improvement in our knowledge of the orbital position of Phobos.
NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have also occasionally photographed both of Mars’ moons to further refine their orbital parameters.
Technicians also fueled the companion Yinghou-1 mini-satellite, provided by China, that will ride along inside a truss segment between the MDU propulsion module and the Phobos-Grunt lander.
The 12,000 kg Phobos-Grunt interplanetary spacecraft is being moved to an integration and test area at Facility 31 for integration with the departure segments of the Zenit rocket.
The next step is to enclose Phobos-Grunt inside the protective payload fairing and transport it to Facility 42 for mating atop the upper stage of the stacked Zenit-2SB booster rocket.
After about an 11 month journey, the spaceship will enter Mars orbit and spend several months searching for a suitable landing site on Phobos. The goal of the bold mission is to retrieve up to 200 grams of soil and rock from Phobos and return them to Earth in August 2014. The samples will help unlock the mysteries of the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System.
Phobos-Grunt is equipped with a powerful 50 kg payload of some 20 international science instruments.
The 110 kg Yinghou-1, which translates as Firefly-1, is China’s first spaceship to voyage to Mars. It will be jettisoned by Phobos-Grunt into a separate orbit about Mars. The probe will photograph the Red planet with two cameras and study it with a magnetometer to explore Mars’ magnetic field and science instruments to explore its upper atmosphere.