Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster

<>. Mission Poster for the Russian Phobos-Grunt soil sample return spacecraft set to launch to Mars and its moon Phobos in November 2011. Phobos-Grunt consistes Credit: Roskosmos - Russian Federal Space Agency


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

Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft set to Launch in November 2011.The flight version of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft minus its main solar panels is being lowered into a vacuum chamber at NITs RKP test facility in Peresvet, north of Moscow, for thermal, vacuum and electric tests around beginning of June 2011. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


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

Finding Phobos: Discovery of a Martian Moon

Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface. Credit: ISRO
Mars Express images of Phobos from January 9, 2011 flyby

If someone were to ask you when fear was first discovered, you could tell them August 11, 1877. That’s when, 134 years ago today, Asaph Hall identified Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons. But even though it’s named after the Greek god of fear, there’s nothing to be afraid of…

Continue reading “Finding Phobos: Discovery of a Martian Moon”

Worlds Apart: Planet and Moon Align

Conjunction of Jupiter and Phobos from Mars Express (rotated so north is up.)

Here’s a cool animation showing Mars’ little moon Phobos passing in front of distant Jupiter from the viewpoint of ESA’s Mars Express orbiter:

The conjunction event occurred on June 1.


Only 21 km (13 miles) across at the widest, the irregularly-shaped Phobos may have been created by a large impact on Mars in its distant past, a chunk of the planet’s crust thrown into orbit. Mars Express most recently performed a close flyby of Phobos back on January 9, passing it at a distance of only 100 km (62 miles).

What’s really amazing to think about is the distances between these two worlds – about 529 million km! But those kinds of distances are no hindrance to vision out in space, especially when the farther object is a giant planet like Jupiter.

The images were taken with Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), which was kept centered on Jupiter during the conjunction. A total of 104 images were taken over a span of 68 seconds to create the animation.

“By knowing the exact moment when Jupiter passed behind Phobos, the observation will help to verify and even improve our knowledge of the orbital position of the martian moon.”


Read the news release on the ESA Space Science site here.

All images shown here were processed at the Department of Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing at the Institute of Geological Sciences of the Freie Universität Berlin. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Morphing Phobos

The folks from have been busy working on the new images of Phobos returned by Mars Express. Above, is an animation created by Daniel Machácek, who also colorized the images and processed them through some morphing software to make a seamless animation (via Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Blog), and below is another morphing animation by Daniel Brennan (via the Mars Express Blog)
Continue reading “Morphing Phobos”

New Looks at Phobos from Mars Express Flyby

Image of Phobos with a resolution of 8.2 m/pixel in orbit 8974. The ellipses marked the previously planned (red) and currently considered (blue) landing sites for the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)


The Mars Express team released the images today from the close flyby the spacecraft made of Phobos on January 9. The images weren’t downloaded from Mars Express until Jan. 18, and then they were processed, so these are hot off the press. The team didn’t provide much explanation, but enjoy the images. There’s one 3-D view in the group, so grab your 3-D glasses.

Another view of Phobos from Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
A sequence of images from 5 different channels on the high resolution camera on Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum
3-D view of Phobos from Jan. 9, 2011. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Here’s the on 3-D view, and the team explained that due to the stereo viewing geometry during the flyby a small part of the moon’s edge is only visible for the right eye resulting in odd 3D-perception in this area. This part has been slightly adjusted for better viewing. Also, for the left eye at the left edge of the image four small data gaps have been interpolated.

Image of Phobos with a resolution of 8.2 m/pixel in orbit 8974. The ellipses marked the previously planned (red) and currently considered (blue) landing sites for the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Source: ESA

Mars Express Set for Phobos Flyby

A coloured view of Phobos made from images taken from two different flybys in March 2010. Credit: ESA/ DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).


The Mars Express spacecraft will be making a very close flyby of the moon Phobos Sunday, January 9, 2011, at a distance of only 111 km from the center of the moon. The spacecraft actually is having eight different fairly close flybys of Phobos between December 20, 2010 and 16 January 2011, but this is the closest of that group. The Sunday buzz-by will be the third closest that Mars Express has performed during its time in orbit at Mars. The flyby speed will be about 3 km/s.

Olivier Witasse, ESA Project Scientist for Mars Express did a Q&A about the flyby with the Mars Express blog, which we’ll post below.

Q: What is the prime objective of this fly-by?

Witasse: The prime objective is to obtain high-resolution data from all remote sensing instruments, and especially to acquire what we hope will be spectacular images using the High Resoultion Stereo Camera (HRSC).

Q: What do the camera team hope to achieve?

Witasse: The HRSC camera will cover the southern hemisphere, which has not been well imaged during previous encounters. It should achieve a ground resolution of about a few metres per pixel. The emphasis will be on stereo imaging. These new data will improve the Phobos elevation model. This time, no colour data will be taken.

Q: Will any other instruments be working?

Witasse: The OMEGA, PFS and SPICAM experiments will acquire new data in the ultraviolet, visible and infrared ranges. This will significantly improve a data set used to map the surface temperatures. Also, and this is very important, the data are being used to find out the composition of Phobos. This is a very difficult exercise, because the spectra lack the obvious signatures of known components such as minerals.

The MARSIS radar will also be working, attempting to obtain echoes from beneath the surface. To complete the picture, the ASPERA experiment will record signatures of the interaction between the solar wind and Phobos, by detecting solar wind particles bouncing off the surface.

All these new data can help unlock the origin of the Martian moons, and will certainly support the Russian sample return mission, Phobos-Grunt, expected to be launched later this year. Unfortunately, the Phobos-Grunt landing site will be at the fringes of view this time and so poorly illuminated.

Q: Why no radio science this time?

Witasse: Given the design of the Mars Express spacecraft, we always have to make a choice between radio-science and remote sensing. In other words, we cannot point the camera towards the target and the high-gain antenna towards Earth at the same time.

For this particular flyby, at 111 km, we decided to give priority to remote sensing for many reasons. Flybys over the illuminated side of Phobos obviously favour the operations of the imagers and spectrometers. Also, the altitude of this flyby is not ideal for radio-science. To improve the gravity data set, we would need to fly below 60 km. Furthermore, at the moment Mars is far from Earth and close to the Sun (as seen from Earth), making the quality of radio-signal unsuitable for a detailed scientific analysis.
In another blog post, the Mars Express team said to expect no pictures from the flyby until January 21, because the whole Phobos data set won’t be downloaded to Earth until January 18. The HRSC team will then process the data, and we can expect a release of images (including a 3D view) on Friday, 21 January.

Source: Mars Express Blog

New Theory Says Phobos Formed From Re-Accretion of Impact Debris

Spatial locations of PFS and observations of Phobos used for the compositional analysis. Credit: Giuranna and Rosenblatt


Most theories on the formation of Phobos and its sister moon of Mars, Deimos, hold that the two moons did not form along with Mars, but were captured asteroids. However, new research indicates that Phobos formed relatively near its current location via re-accretion of material blasted into Mars’ orbit by some catastrophic event, such as a huge impact. This could be an event similar to how Earth’s moon formed. Thermal infrared spectra data from two Mars missions, ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor have provided independent researchers similar new conclusions of how Phobos formed.

The origin of the two Martian satellites has been a long standing puzzle. Previous researchers have postulated that because of Phobos small size and highly cratered surface, as well as the fact that Mars is reasonably close to the asteroid belt, that Phobos was a captured asteroid. Recently, alternative scenarios suggested that both moons were formed in-situ by the re-accretion of rocky-debris blasted into Mars’s orbit after a large impact or by re-accretion of remnants of a former moon which was destroyed by Mars’s tidal force.

Today, Dr. Giuranna from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Rome, Italy, and Dr. Rosenblatt from the Royal Observatory of Belgium presented their new findings at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome, saying that the thermal data from the two spacecract, as well as the measurements of Phobos’ high porosity from the Mars Radio Science Experiment (MaRS) on board Mars Express, supports the re-accretion scenario.

“Understanding the composition of the Martian moons is the key to constrain these formation theories,” said Giuranna.

Spatial locations of TES and observations of Phobos used for the compositional analysis. Credit: Giuranna and Rosenblatt

Previous observations of Phobos at visible and near-infrared wavelengths suggest the possible presence of carbonaceous chondritic meteorites, carbon-rich and likely from the early formation of the solar system, commonly associated with asteroids dominant in the middle part of the asteroid belt. This finding would support the early asteroid capture scenario. However recent thermal infrared observations from the Mars Express Planetary Fourier Spectrometer, show poor agreement with any class of chondritic meteorite. They instead argue in favor of the in-situ scenarios.

“We detected for the first time a type of mineral called phyllosilicates on the surface of Phobos, particularly in the areas northeast of Stickney, its largest impact crater,” said Giuranna. “This is very intriguing as it implies the interaction of silicate materials with liquid water on the parent body prior to incorporation into Phobos. Alternatively phyllosilicates may have formed in situ, but this would mean that Phobos required sufficient internal heating to enable liquid water to remain stable. More detailed mapping, in-situ measurements froma lander, or sample return would ideally help to settle this issue unambiguously.”

But other observations appear to match up with the types of minerals identified on the surface of Mars. From that data, Phobos appears more closely related to Mars than objects from other locations in the solar system.

“The asteroid capture scenarios also have difficulties in explaining the current near-circular and near-equatorial orbit of both Martian moons,” said Rosenblatt.

The MaRS instrument used the frequency variations of the radio-link between the spacecraft and the Earth-based tracking stations in order to precisely reconstruct the motion of the spacecraft when it is perturbed by the gravitational attraction of Phobos, and from this, the team was able provide most precise measurement of Phobos’ mass, with a precision of 0.3%.

Additionally, the team was able to give the best estimate yet of Phobos’s volume, with a density of 1.86±0.02 g/cm3.

“This number is significantly lower than the density of meteoritic material associated with asteroids. It implies a sponge-like structure with voids making up 25-45% in Phobos’ interior,” said Rosenblatt.

“High porosity is required in order to absorb the energy of the large impact that generated Stickney crater (the large crater on Phobos) without destroying the body,, said Giuranna. “In addition a highly porous interior of Phobos, as proposed by the MaRS team, supports the re-accretion formation scenarios”.

The researchers said a highly porous asteroid would have probably not survived if captured by Mars. Alternatively, such a highly porous Phobos can result from the re-accretion of rocky-blocks in Mars’ orbit. During re-accretion, the largest blocks re-accrete first because of their larger mass, forming a core with large boulders. Then, the smaller debris re-accrete but do not fill the gaps left between the large blocks because of the low self-gravity of the small body in formation. Finally, a relatively smooth surface masks the space of voids inside the body, which then can only be indirectly detected. Thus, a highly porous interior of Phobos, as proposed by the MaRS team, supports the re-accretion formation scenarios.

The researchers said they would like more data on Phobos to verify their findings, and the upcoming Russian Phobos-Grunt mission (Phobos Sample Return), scheduled for launch in 2011, will help to provide more understanding regarding the origin of Phobos.

Source: Europlanet Conference

Mars Webcam Provides Astronaut-like View of Red Planet

What would it be like to approach Mars in a spacecraft? In one of the coolest movies ever, we now know! Using the the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on board Mars Express, science teams put together 600 individual still images to create a movie of descending towards and then moving away from Mars. It shows the spacecraft’s slow descent from high above the planet, speeding up as closest approach is passed and then slowing down again as the distance increases.
Continue reading “Mars Webcam Provides Astronaut-like View of Red Planet”

New Images of Phobos from Mars Express Flyby

Phobos, as seen by Mars Express on March 7, 2010. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

ESA released new images of Mars’ moon Phobos, taken during the Mars Express March 7, 2010 flyby, showing the rocky moon in exquisite detail and also in 3-D. Mars Express orbits the Red Planet in a highly elliptical, polar orbit that brings it close to Phobos every five months, and it is the only spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars whose orbit reaches far enough from the planet to provide a close-up view of Phobos. Like our Moon, Phobos always shows the same side to the planet, so only by flying outside the orbit is it possible to observe the moon’s far side. Mars Express did such flybys on March 7, 10 and 13. Get out your 3-D glasses for a great look at Phobos, below.

Phobos in 3-D. taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard the ESA spacecraft Mars Express. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Phobos is an irregular body measuring some 27 × 22 × 19 km. Its origin is debated. It appears to share many surface characteristics with the class of ‘carbonaceous C-type’ asteroids, which suggests it might have been captured by Mars. However, it is difficult to explain either the capture mechanism or the subsequent evolution of the orbit into the equatorial plane of Mars. An alternative hypothesis is that it formed around Mars, and is therefore a remnant from the planetary formation period.

The Phobos/Grunt landing site, as seen by Mars Express on March 7, 2010. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

In 2011 Russia will send a mission called Phobos–Grunt (meaning Phobos Soil) to land on Phobos, and an experiment will collect a soil sample and return it to Earth for analysis.

Phobos-Grunt will also carry with it The Planetary Society’s LIFE experiment which will test the survivability of microorganisms in the conditions of deep space. The experiment is a study of the panspermia hypothesis, which posits that microorganisms have traveled between planets sheltered deep inside space rocks.

For operational and landing safety reasons, the proposed landing sites were selected on the far side of Phobos within the area 5°S-5°N, 230-235°E. But new HRSC images showing the vicinity of the landing with better illumination from the Sun that previous images, which will provide valuable views and information for mission planners.

Mars Express will continue to encounter Phobos until the end of March, when the moon will pass out of range. During the remaining flybys, the high-resolution camera and other instruments will continue to collect data.

Source: ESA