Russia Set to Return to Deep Space after 15 Years

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Nov. 9 – Russia is preparing for a historic return to deep space with the launch of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on Wednesday on an ambitious and risky three-year US$163 million mission to bring back a soil sample from the Red Planet.

The launch is scheduled for 12:16 a.m. Moscow time this Wednesday (20.16 GMT Tuesday), Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) reports. The Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Grunt mission is set to launch from the Baikonur Space Center located in Kazakhstan.

Phobos-Grunt (grunt is for “soil”) is the first Russian mission to Mars in 15 years.

“We haven’t had a successful interplanetary expedition for over 15 years. In that time, the people, the technology, everything has changed. It’s all new for us, in many ways we are working from scratch,” lead scientist Alexander Zakharov with Moscow’s Space Research Institute said to reporters.

First proposed in the 1970s, the Phobos-Grunt project was delayed for years by post-Soviet economic problems, brain drain, and downsizing of the nation’s scientific institutions.

Even after the funding for Phobos-Grunt had improved in the second half of the 2000s, the project was plagued by mismanagement, unnecessary political pressure, and serious technical problems. When this complex spacecraft with all its numerous untested systems finally reached a launch pad, many insiders still considered its chances for achieving its main goal – returning soil from Phobos – close to nil.

If successful, Phobos-Grunt will help erase the memory of one of Russia’s worst ever space failures, when its Mars-96 probe bound for the Red Planet failed to reach orbit and crashed into the ocean in 1996.

The planetary missions primary goal is returning up to 200 grams of soil from the Martian moon Phobos. The 3-year mission will also conduct in-situ measures on the surface of Phobos, study Mars and its environment, and launch China’s first interplanetary spacecraft, the tiny 250-pound Yinghuo-1, which will work in orbit with Phobos-Grunt over one year to study Mars’ atmosphere.

The spacecraft contains instruments and experiments from France, Finland, Bulgaria, and The Planetary Society.

Scientists hope Phobos-Grunt will touch down on a flat spot and find the ground soft enough to scrape up. “Any big rocks near the surface can capsize it,” Zakharov said.

Phobos-Grunt must then lift off, navigate Mars’ orbit, fly back with a belly full of dirt and finally make a nail-biting atmospheric re-entry without a parachute or homing beacons.

Furthermore, the craft will carry the LIFE experiment, which stands for the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment. This experiment consists of sending some selective microorganisms –representatives from bacteria, eukaryota, and archaea, prepared by the U.S. Planetary Society –for a three-year interplanetary trip without any protective bubble to see if they will survive.

This experiment is designed to simulate a Martian meteoroid on a journey to the earth. Its results will prove or demolish part of a theory that life could have evolved on one planet and migrated to another inside meteorites.

The return vehicle will be vaulted away by springs before its engine ignites to avoid damaging any of instruments on the lander. If all goes well, the vehicle will return to Earth in August 2014.

The last time material was collected from another world was in 1976, by Luna 24.

“After a humiliating two-decade absence from deep space, Phobos-Grunt has become a test of Russia’s space industry following a generation of brain drain and crimped budgets,” Reuters speculates.

“Russia is desperate to show it remains a superpower in space exploration and is still inspired by the daring spirit of the first man in space Yuri Gagarin, in the year it celebrated the 50th anniversary of his historic voyage,” marsdaily.com writes.

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