Update on Phobos-Grunt: Might the LIFE Experiment be Recovered?

Phobos-Grunt

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Editor’s note: With Russian engineers trying to save the Phobos-Grunt mission, Dr. David Warmflash, principal science lead for the US team from the LIFE experiment on board the spacecraft, provides an update of the likelihood of saving the mission, while offering the intriguing prospect that their experiment could possibly be recovered, even if the mission fails.

With the latest word from Roscosmos being that the Mars moon probe, Phobos-Grunt is “not officially lost,” but yet remains trapped in low Earth orbit, people are wondering what may happen over the next several weeks. Carried into space early Wednesday morning, November 9, Moscow time, atop a Zenit 2 rocket, Grunt, Russian for “soil”, entered what is known in space exploration as a parking orbit. After the engine of the Zenit upper stage completed its burn, it separated from another stage, known as Fregat, which now still remains attached to Phobos-Grunt. Ignition of the Fregat engine was to occur twice during the first five hours in space. The first Fregat burn would have taken the spacecraft to a much higher orbit; the second burn, about 2.5 hours later would have propelled the probe on its way to Mars and its larger moon, Phobos. From this moon, a sample of soil would be scooped into a special capsule which would return to Earth for recovery in 2014.

Grunt is still in a low orbit, because neither Fregat burn occurred. While the spacecraft is believed to be in safe mode and even has maneuvered such that its orbital altitude has increased, controllers have been unable to establish contact to send new commands. If communication cannot be established, it will re-enter the atmosphere.

In addition to the sample return capsule, Grunt carries an instrument package designated to remain on the Phobosian surface, plus a Chinese probe, Yinghuo-1, designed to orbit Mars. The mission also includes the Planetary Society’s Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) , for which I serve as principal science lead of the US team. Carried inside the return capsule into which the Phobosian soil is to be deposited, LIFE consists of a discoid-shaped canister, a biomodule, weighing only 88 grams. Inside are 30 sample tubes carrying ten biological species, each in triplicate. Surrounded by the 30 tubes is a sample of soil with a mixed population of microorganisms, taken from the Negev desert in Israel to be analyzed by Russian microbiologists.

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

Organisms carried within the LIFE biomodule include members of all three domains of Earth life: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota. The purpose of the experiment is to test how well the different species can endure the space environment, akin to microorganisms moving in space within a meteoroid ejected from Mars by an impact event. If organisms can remain viable within rock material that is transferred naturally from Mars to Earth, it would lend support to the Mars transpermia hypothesis –the idea that life on Earth may have began by way of a seeding event by early organisms from Mars.

We know of microorganisms that could survive the pressures and temperatures associated with the ejection itself. We also know that during atmospheric entry, only the most outer few millimeters of rocks are heated on their way to Earth; thus, anything alive in a rock’s interior at this point should still be alive when the rock hits Earth as a meteorite. If life forms also could survive the journey itself from Mars to Earth, a Martian origin for Earth’s life would be a major possibility. It also would mean that life originating on its own anywhere in the Cosmos could spread from each point of origin, thus increasing the number of living planets and moons that may exist.

Numerous studies of the survivability of many of the LIFE species have been conducted in low Earth orbit, but much of the challenge to life in space comes from highly energetic space radiation. A large portion of space radiation is trapped by a system of magnetic fields known as the Van Allen radiation belts, or the geomagnetosphere. Since very few controlled studies of microorganisms, plant seeds, and other life have been conducted beyond the Van Allen belts, which reach an altitude of about 60,000 kilometers (about 1/7th the distance to the Moon), the Planetary Society arranged to have the LIFE biomodule carried within Grunt’s return capsule.

Over last weekend, the spacecraft surprised everyone by maneuvering on its own, raising its orbit. Due to this, the estimated reentry date was moved back from late November to mid January, meaning that the LIFE biomodule will be in space for more than nine weeks. An intriguing possibility that looms as controllers consider how the mission might end is that the Grunt sample return capsule will break off from the rest of the craft intact. If this happens, it could assume the stable atmospheric entry, descent, and landing that were expected after the return from Phobos. If this happens and the capsule comes down on land, we could recover the LIFE biomodule and test the state of the organisms packaged within it. The result of yet another biological test in low orbit, it would not be the experiment of our dreams. But, amidst the loss of a mission into which so many engineers and scientists have invested their dreams, a little bit could mean a lot.

Russians Race against Time to Save Ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe from Earthly Demise

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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.

Blastoff of Phobos-Grunt spacecraft atop Zenit-2 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 9. Credit: Roscosmos

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.

Russia’s historic Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars and Phobos will retrieve 200 grams of soil from the surface of Martian moon Phobos and fly the samples back to Earth by August 2014. Credit: Roscosmos

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.

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter. Main propulsion is the Fregat upper stage that failed to ignite twice following flawless liftoff on Nov. 9. Credit: Roskosmos

Further details will be reported as they emerge.

Meanwhile, NASA’s car sized Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover is posied atop an Atlas V rocket at her Florida launch pad awaiting a Nov. 25 liftoff.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt here:
Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off
Russian Mars Moon Sample Probe Poised to Soar atop Upgraded Rocket – VideoAwesome 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

Russia’s Bold Sample Return Mission to Mars and Phobos Blasts Off

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.

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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.

Russia’s historic Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to Mars and Phobos liftoff off on top of a Zenit-2SB rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on November 9, 2011 at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time (Nov. 8, 3:16 p.m. EST) from Launch Pad 45. Credit: Roscosmos

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.

Awesome Action Animation Depicts Russia’s Bold Robot Retriever to Mars moon Phobos

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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.

Another video below shows the arrival and uncrating of the actual Phobos-Grunt spacecraft at Baikonur in October 2011.

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

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter. Credit: Roskosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov. 9 launch here:
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

Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos

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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.

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft attached to payload adapter prior to encapsulation. Note folded solar panels, gold colored sample transfer tube leading to return capsule, landing legs, antennae and propulsion tanks. Credit: Roscosmos

China’s first ever mission to Mars, the Yinghuo-1 micro-satellite, is also encased inside the nose cone and is tucked in a truss segment between the lander and interplanetary propulsion stage.

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.

Sealing up Phobos-Grunt. Credit: Roscosmos

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.

Martian moon Phobos imaged by Mars Express Orbiter from ESA. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

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.

Phobos-Grunt payload fairing. Credit: Roscosmos

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.

View inside nose cone and preparing to encapsulate Phobos-Grunt. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roscosmos

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.

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is scheduled to blastoff on November 9, 2011 from Baikonur Cosmodrome. It will reach Mars orbit in 2012 and eventually land on Phobos and return the first ever soil samples back to Earth in 2014. Credit Roscosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt here:
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

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity & Nov. 25 launch starting here:
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

Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near

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 !

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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.

Phobos- Jupiter Conjunction: before, during and after on 1 June 2011 from Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

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.

Phobos in 3 D during flyby of 10 March 2010. Image taken from a distance of 278 km. Russia’s Phobos-Grunt will retrieve rogolith and rock for return to Earth. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have also occasionally photographed both of Mars’ moons to further refine their orbital parameters.

NASA’s Curiosity rover remains on track to liftoff for Mars on Nov. 25

Orbital Paths of Phobos and Mars Express. The trajectories of Phobos and Mars Express at the time of the conjunction with Jupiter on 1 June 2011. The letter ‘S’ denotes the South Pole of Mars.
Technicians at Baikonur Cosmodrome prepare Phobos-Grunt for upper stage attachment. Credit: Roscosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt here:
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

Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9

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Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, has set November 9 as the launch date for the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and its tiny moon Phobos. Roscosmos has officially announced that the audacious mission to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the surface of Phobos will blastoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Zenit-2SB rocket at 00:16 a.m. Moscow time.

Roscosmos said that engineers have finished loading all the propellants into the Phobos-Grunt main propulsion module (cruise stage), Phobos lander and Earth return module at Facility 31 at Baikonur.

Phobos-Grunt is Russia’s first mission to Mars in almost two decades and a prelude to an ambitious program of even more interplanetary Russian science flights.

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is set to launch to Mars on November 9, 2011.
L-shaped soil sample transfer tube extends from Earth return module ( top -yellow) and solar panel to bottom (left) of lander module. 2 landing legs, communications antenna, sampling arm, propulsion tanks and more are visible. Credit Roscosmos

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.

Scientists hope that bits of Martian soil will be mixed in with Phobos soil.

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.

Earth’s other mission to Mars in 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover, is set to blast off for Mars on Nov. 25

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter

Read Ken’s continuing features about Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars mission here::
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

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
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

Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline

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Barely in the nick of time, Russia’s groundbreaking Phobos-Grunt interplanetary spacecraft to Mars finally arrived on Monday (Oct. 17) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan – and today (Oct. 18) an eye-popping collection of great images (see below) was at last published by Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

This first-of-its-kind spaceship is due to blast off quite soon – sometime in the first half of November – although Roskosmos has yet to announce an official launch date and time is running out. The deadline to Mars is Nov. 25.

Top view of Phobos-Grunt, sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

The explicit close-up photos show both the Phobos-Grunt orbiter/lander vehicle and her companion Yinghou-1 Mars orbiter, built by China, being uncrated from a huge shipping container, uprighted and then showcased from many revealing angles from top to bottom, tilted from side to side and looking inside her hardware stack.

The photos illustrate the solar panels, landing legs, J-shaped soil sampling tube, Earth return vehicle and descent capsule, star trackers, communications antennae, maneuvering thrusters and more.

Top view of Phobos-Grunt, sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

The Yinghou-1 mini-satellite is clearly visible tucked inside a truss situated between the Phobos-Grunt landing ship and the MDU propulsion stage.

Phobos-Grunt was just air shipped from Moscow to Baikonur inside an Antonov An-124-100 “Ruslan” cargo plane operated by “Polyot” airline.

The cargo canister was offloaded and transported by truck to Facility 31. The spacecraft was then placed on a test stand to begin an intense period of final prelaunch payload processing activites to ready the probe for launch.

The Zenit-2SB booster rocket also recently arrived at Baikonur for ongoing prelaunch processing at nearby Building 42.

Chinese Yinghou-1 mini-satellite tucked truss at right, situated below the Phobos-Grunt lander at left. Credit: Roskosmos.

Russia’s engineers and technicians will have to work diligently in the few weeks remaining in order to complete all preflight activities to achieve a liftoff to the Red Planet before the unforgiving and narrow launch window closes for another 26 months.

Phobos-Grunt Earth return spacecraft. Close-up view of solar panels, Earth descent capsule and soil sample transfer tube. Credit: Roskosmos.
Phobos-Grunt sample collecting and sample return vehicle. Credit: Roskosmos.

Tilted view of Phobos-Grunt attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Earth is actually lofting two exciting science missions to Mars this November. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is due to blastoff on Nov. 25 and her launch window extends until Dec. 18. Both spaceships missed their initially targeted launch windows in 2009 due to the need to fix unresolved technical issues.

Phobos-Grunt is a daring sample return mission whose goal is to retrieve up to 200 grams of soil and rock from the tiny Martian moon Phobos, that will help elucidate the origin and evolution of Phobos, Mars and the Solar System.

Tilted view of Phobos-Grunt attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Side view of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 orbiter (bottom) attached to test stand for final prelaunch processing. Credit: Roskosmos.

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter

Read Ken’s continuing Mars features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff
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

Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster

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Russia is marking the upcoming blastoff of their dauntingly complex Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos with the release of a quite cool looking mission poster – see above. Phobos-Grunt translates as Phobos-Soil and is due to liftoff on or about November 7, 2011 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Zenit rocket.

The holy grail of Mars exploration has long been a sample return mission. But with severe cutbacks to NASA’s budget that goal is realistically more than a decade away. That’s why Phobos- Grunt is so exciting from a scientific standpoint.

Phobos-Grunt Orbiter/Lander
Russia's Phobos-Grunt is designed to land on Mars' moon Phobos, collect soil samples and return them to Earth for study. The lander will also carry scientific instrumetns to study Phobos and its environment. It will travel to Mars together with Yinghuo-1, China's first mission to the Red Planet. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Phobos-Grunt Robotic sampling arm. Credit: Roskosmos

If successful, this audacious probe will retrieve about 200 grams of soil from the diminutive moon Phobos and accomplish the round trip in three years time by August 2014. Scientists speculate that martian dust may coat portions of Phobos and could possibly be mixed in with any returned samples.

Included here are more photos and graphics of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft which is equipped with two robotic arms and a sampling device to transfer regolith and rocks to the Earth return vehicle and an on board array of some 15 science instruments, including lasers, spectrometers, cameras and a microscope. Readers please feel free to help with Russian translations.

Phobos-Grunt Model
This is a full-scale mockup of Russia's Phobos-Grunt. The spacecraft will collect samples of soil on Mar's moon Phobos and to bring the samples back to Earth for detailed study. Credit: CNES

Phobos-Grunt is the first of Earth’s two missions launching to the Red Planet in 2011. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory is due to lift off on Nov. 25, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt, Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff
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

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

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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