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Phobos-Grunt poster
A Russian poster for the Phobos-Grunt mission. (credit: Roscosmos)

Red moon around a Red Planet

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Very soon—perhaps by the time you’ve read this article—Russia will launch the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars. Whether you’re interested in planetary science or human spaceflight there is good reason to hope that this mission succeeds, but also reason to expect it to fail.

This combination of great ambition and inexperience makes Phobos-Grunt a risky mission.

Phobos-Grunt is an incredibly ambitious mission to send a spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos, perform analysis there, retrieve some samples (“Grunt” is Russian for “soil”), possibly even including ejected pieces of Mars, and then return them to Earth. In addition to its scientific instrument suite and its sample return equipment, the spacecraft will also carry a Chinese Mars orbiter. In terms of sophistication, this mission is the equivalent of NASA’s mid-sized New Frontiers class of spacecraft, with an impressive science suite and many engineering challenges.

But the Russians are out of practice. Phobos-Grunt is the first Russian planetary science mission since 1996 when Mars 96 never even left Earth orbit, but instead almost immediately fell into the ocean or plastered itself onto the Andes mountains. Before that the Soviets sent two spacecraft to Phobos in 1988. Both failed to achieve their primary objectives, although the Russians considered them to be partially successful. Phobos-Grunt is only the third Russian space science mission to fly in a decade, the last being the Spektr-R radio observatory launched a few months ago. Simply put, the Russians have not done space science missions in a very long time.

This combination of great ambition and inexperience makes Phobos-Grunt a risky mission. Talk to many American space scientists about it and they’ll tell you that it’s an exciting mission, but then they get grim about its chances. The Russians, they say, may have aimed a little too high.

Last week in Washington, DC, the Secure World Foundation sponsored a discussion about the Russian space program. (You can read Laura Delgado’s summary here.) Russian space expert Anatoly Zak, who runs the outstanding website, said that right now the Russian robotic space program suffers from archaic procedures and institutions, experience gaps, and outdated technology. Surprisingly, resources are not an issue: they currently have more money than they can effectively spend. But American scientists who have been to Russian space science institutions describe empty offices and silent hallways. Many of the younger scientists decamped to Europe and the United States in the 1990s, leaving a bunch of older scientists and a few younger ones with an age and experience gap in between.

Phobos-Grunt illustration
An illustration of the Phobos-Grunt lander on Phobos. (credit: Roscosmos)

Phobos-Grunt may be too much of a spacecraft for a space program with these limitations. Ideally, the Russians should have started with something smaller, such as a series of small lunar missions to regain lost skills. Probably few Russians involved in their space program would agree with this view, arguing that Phobos-Grunt is based upon a lot of proven space hardware, and is an extension of their past experience at Phobos. But—perhaps still thinking in terms of space “firsts” rather than an overall science strategy—the space science missions that the Russians would like to conduct are all ambitious and unique things that the Americans have not done before. Other ideas on their wish list include sending a lander equipped with a drill to the lunar south pole (NASA has yet to send a lander to the lunar south pole or use a lander equipped with a drill), or returning to the surface of Venus, long ignored by the United States. Several years ago the Russians even held a conference to discuss landing on Europa, although they have never sent a spacecraft beyond Mars.

If Phobos-Grunt succeeds, the science yield about the Martian moon could be substantial.

Right now the American planetary exploration program is experiencing its golden age. NASA has twelve—yes, twelve—planetary missions currently in operation. (Count them: Cassini, Opportunity, MESSENGER, Artemis, Dawn, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, GRAIL, Juno heading toward Jupiter, New Horizons speeding toward Pluto, and even EPOXI, albeit with limited remaining fuel. Voyager 1 and 2, now technically ex-planetary missions, are still operating, and NASA has instruments on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet mission and Mars Express. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity will launch in a few weeks. Osiris-REx, MAVEN, and LADEE are all under construction. NASA’s record is simply incredible in this regard.) One of the foundations of NASA’s planetary program is balance among large, medium and small missions. This has proven vital in many ways, including NASA’s ability to use its smaller Discovery-class missions, which originated in the “faster, better, cheaper” approach in the 1990s, to develop such vital skills as systems engineering and program management, and to train new generations of scientists. Those skills and knowledge can then graduate to larger missions. The Russians could learn from this example, recovering their ability to walk before trying to sprint.

But if Phobos-Grunt succeeds, the science yield about the Martian moon could be substantial, possibly including explaining how Phobos and Mars’s other moon, Deimos, were both created. There are several theories, including that they are captured asteroids and that they were ejected from Mars itself. But all of the theories have holes in them and none of them are entirely convincing. More data could answer this question.

From a human exploration standpoint, answering questions about Phobos could be very important. Some scientists believe that Phobos could contain volatiles. If true, Phobos could provide useful resources for a future human mission to Mars—exploiting them would be remotely possible, but still better than nothing. Decades ago S. Fred Singer proposed staging human missions from the moons. Several weeks ago Lockheed Martin engineer Josh Hopkins spoke about human missions to Deimos (audio mp3). Phobos and Deimos are in several ways the easiest “asteroids” to reach because they have regular launch windows every 26 months, compared to near Earth objects that may have launch windows many years apart. According to Hopkins, Deimos is more attractive than Phobos from an operations standpoint, because from its perch in a higher orbit it provides more access to sunlight and a greater view of Mars. It could provide a useful location for operating robotic rovers on the surface, and practice for a more difficult Mars landing mission.

Phobos-Grunt would be a powerful demonstration proof that bringing samples back from Mars orbit is possible. More importantly, it would place the Russians in the running to provide the vital sample return spacecraft for an expensive Mars sample return campaign.

American scientists have two good reasons to hope that Phobos-Grunt succeeds. The first is the science return from the Martian moon, which no American spacecraft is scheduled to explore. Phobos itself has never been a priority for American scientists for complex and obscure reasons. It has been hurt in part by the fact that it falls between the cracks in the planetary science communities: Mars experts consider the moons to be asteroids, asteroid experts consider them to be connected to Mars, and both groups have other, higher priorities. Over the years several American scientists have proposed Discovery-class missions to Phobos, but none have successfully won the intense competitions for funding (the American planetary exploration program is a meritocracy, producing the best missions thru rigorous competition). Some Phobos-Deimos advocates hoped that NASA’s now-canceled robotic precursor missions program would lead to funding from the human exploration budget for a Martian moon mission, but that has not happened either. The Russians may be the only way to get this data.

The second reason that American scientists have to hope that the Russians succeed is political, and programmatic. NASA’s top planetary science priority is Mars sample return. Even though Phobos-Grunt would not return samples until 2014 at the earliest, it would be a powerful demonstration proof that bringing samples back from Mars orbit is possible. More importantly, it would place the Russians in the running to provide the vital sample return spacecraft for this expensive sample return campaign.

So when Phobos-Grunt launches, we should keep our fingers crossed. And while it’s not possible to hold our breath for the next several years, we should hope that this spacecraft makes it. There’s a lot more than the health of the Russian space science program riding on this mission.