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15 Oct, 2013 21:28

Phobos-Grunt-2: Russia to probe Martian moon by 2022

Phobos-Grunt-2: Russia to probe Martian moon by 2022

Russia is set to launch a probe to the Martian moon Phobos by 2022, the head of the Russian Space Research Institute has revealed. The renewal of the ambitious program, which includes taking samples of the moon’s soil, comes despite previous failure.

“We plan to get back to Phobos in 2020-2022,” the institute’s director, Lev Zeleny, announced on Tuesday, speaking at the Russian Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The new interplanetary probe mission will become “a springboard for implementing other similar international programs,” he added. It is currently codenamed “Boomerang.”

Earlier in April, the scientist said that the mission to the Martian vicinity will be repeated despite the failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe in 2011.

Zeleny explained that the nature and origin of Phobos are of major interest to science. There is a theory that the moon might be a captured main-belt asteroid containing materials dating back to the formation of the solar system.

Other than taking and delivering samples of the Red Planet moon’s soil for research, which could reveal its origin, the 2011-launched Phobos-Grunt probe had a list of different goals.

Those included the environmental study of the vicinity of Mars, monitoring of the planet’s atmospheric behavior, search for traces of life, and a round-trip LIFE experiment involving capsuled extremophile microbes.

A high resolution image of Phobos taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The probe was also tasked with delivering Chinese surveying satellite “Yinghuo-1” to the orbit of Mars.

However, shortly after takeoff on November 9, 2011, Phobos-Grunt became trapped in near-Earth orbit after failing to fire its engines which would have darted it to Mars. Attempts to revive the probe proved fruitless, as it did not respond to commands from Earth. The probe eventually plummeted back, partly burning up in the atmosphere, and its remains fell into the Pacific Ocean on January 17, 2012.

Later that month, the Russian Space Agency concluded that solar radiation was behind the malfunction of the probe. The agency’s ex-director, Vladimir Popovkin, pointed out that the microelectronic hardware which failed to resist the heavily charged space particles was foreign-made.

But both the official comments and reports citing agency sources said that the launch was risky from the start due to poor testing constrained by deadlines. Consequently, the testing and equipping of spacecraft developed in Russian space programs was said to be totally revised and overhauled.

The string of failures of Russia’s attempts to explore Mars and the larger of its two moons has been dubbed its “Martian curse.” For the nation that was the first to launch a satellite and a human being into space and achieved the first unmanned lunar and Martian soft landings, the setback has been particularly humiliating.

In the last 25 years, Soviet/Russian scientists carried out four unsuccessful missions of Phobos-1 and Phobos-2 (1988), Mars-96 (1996) and Phobos-Grunt.

None of the missions were completely in vain, though, as the technologies developed for them have been used in both Russian and international Martian projects.

Recently, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency have teamed up to develop a united ExoMars exploration program. The agencies plan to send a satellite to Mars in 2016. And in 2018, they plan to land a rover that would be able to drill the planet’s soil some 30 times deeper than NASA’s “Curiosity.”

Meanwhile, Russia is slowly but steadily preparing for its most ambitious space project – the manned interplanetary mission to Mars.

Handout file photograph released by SSC RF – IBMP RAS (IBMP) on June 4, 2010 shows scientists testing the "Orlan" space suit inside the Mars500 isolation facility in Moscow on March 23, 2009. (AFP/IBMP)

In 2010 and 2011, Russia carried out the Mars-500 experiment. A group of six volunteers were locked inside a simulated spacecraft at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow for 520 days – the time it would take to go to Mars and back.

In 2018, Roscosmos plans to stage an even more complicated experiment by sending two cosmonauts for one year to the International Space Station (ISS). They will then be returned to Earth to imitate activities on the Martian surface before immediately returning to the ISS to simulate the trip back home.

Equally crucial for the manned mission to Mars is the development of the new nuclear engine with an electric ion propulsion system. The start of the testing for this drive, which is meant to exceed the limits of traditional rocket engines, is scheduled for 2017.

Roscosmos has estimated that a functioning atomic engine will not arrive in space before the year 2025, and said that the next possible date to send a manned expedition to Mars would occur in 2035.