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The Probes and Cons of Russia's Martian Moon Shot

A couple of weeks ago on November 9, Russia launched one of the most exciting and ambitious missions ever sent to Mars. Phobos-Grunt was designed to land on Mars’ larger and closer moon, Phobos, collect a soil sample, and return it to Earth. Analysis...
November 18, 2011, 3:37pm

A couple of weeks ago on November 9, Russia launched one of the most exciting and ambitious missions ever sent to Mars. Phobos-Grunt was designed to land on Mars' larger and closer moon, Phobos, collect a soil sample, and return it to Earth. Analysis and study of the returned soil sample could help scientists understand where the Martian moon came from and answer questions about the early origins of the solar system.


But that soil sample might never make it back to Earth. In fact, Phobos-Grunt might never make it to Mars. It's stuck in orbit. After a successful launch, the engine that needs to fire and put the spacecraft on its Mars-bound trajectory failed to fire.

There are ongoing reports on the mission's status. Things briefly looked up a few days after the failure, when the thrusters seemed to reanimate. There's still a chance for the Russian Space Agency to save the mission through some clever software uploads, to get the engine to fire and arrive on Phobos some time in March 2012.


Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against a success. Russia doesn't have a great track record when it comes to Mars. As the former Soviet Union as well as modern Russia, none of the missions the nation has sent to Mars have been successful.

The Soviet Union was the first nation to send a mission to Mars. In mid-1962, Mars 1launched successfully. It was en route to the red planet where it intended to land when contact was lost. The mission was ultimately deemed over and the Soviet Space Program never got any indication from the spacecraft of what went wrong.

Luckily, there were backups to Mars 1. Two equivalent spacecraft launched in late 1962: Mars 1962A and Mars 1962B. Like NASA, the Soviet Space Agency named missions for their year and switched to a sequential numbering system only when the mission was on its way to its destination. Neither Mars 1962A or Mars 1962B made the change to numerical designations. Both missions failed to achieve orbit and returned to Earth not long after launch.

Mars 1M Spacecraft.

Undaunted, the Soviet Union continued with a pair of combination orbiter-landers called Mars 2 and Mars 3. After a brief hiatus, the missions were launched in 1971. Both orbiters reached Mars and managed to photograph its surface, albeit intermittently. Their landers, however, were a different story. The Mars 2 lander entered the Martian atmosphere at too steep an angle, its parachute failed, and it crashed on the surface. Technically, though, it was the first manmade object sent from Earth to reach the Martian surface.

Mars 3 reached the surface safely, but found itself amid a raging dust storm. Communications from the lander failed after 90 seconds. The rover that was designed to explore the surrounding area on a 15-foot tether never had a chance to deploy. Soviet scientists concluded that the dusty conditions were the likely cause of the failure.

Model Mars 3 lander.

In 1973, the Soviet Union sent four more missions to Mars – Mars 4 and Mars 5 were launched on June 21 and 25 respectively, and Mars 6 and Mars 7 were launched August 5 and 9. Mars 4 and 5 were to remain in orbit and receive data from the surface landers that would arrive on Mars by way of the Mars 6 and 7 missions.

Mars 4 missed the planet when its retrorocket brakes failed to fire and slow it down. It was never captured by Mars' gravity. Mars 7 was derailed by a similar electronic failure and never reached its target. The other two missions were partially successful. Mars 5 did achieve orbit and operated for 22 days. Mars 6 reached the surface. Its descent and landing looked nominal, but it never communicated with Earth after its landing. It's likely the lander missed its intended flat landing area and instead reached Samara Vallis, a deep and uneven gorge. The lander would have been better off trying to land blind in the Grand Canyon.

Mars 5 spacecraft.

After the failures in 1973, the Soviet Union turned its efforts to Venus – the nation had striking success landing on this incredibly hostile neighboring world.

It wasn't until 1988 that the Soviet Union attempted a return to Mars. The mission called for a pair of spacecraft to deploy twin landers to the surface of the moon Phobos. Phobos 1 operated nominally until September 2 when an expected communication from the spacecraft never came. Phobos 2 got closer to Mars before falling victim to a similar communications failure. The mission was deemed finished on March 27, 1989. Neither spacecraft got to the point of deploying a lander to the moon's surface.

Phobos 1 spacecraft.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia continued with its original plan started in 1988, which was to follow up on the Phobos missions eight years later with a mission to the red planet. The follow up mission in 1996 – Mars 96 – was designed to study Mars from orbit, deploy a lander, and probe into its surface with specialized instruments. But Mars 96, like Phobos-Grunt, got stuck in Earth’s orbit. The rocket's third stage engine failed to fire and put the spacecraft on its Mars-bound trajectory. It returned to Earth during its third orbit.

On the plus side, Phobos-Grunt is doing better than its Mars 96 predecessor. There's some chance, however small, that the mission might be saved. If it is recovered, hopefully the Russian Space Agency will have better luck with Mars in the future.