AsianScientist (Nov. 9, 2011) – Early on Wednesday at about 2 a.m. (IST), five days after a record-breaking 520-day simulated manned mission to Mars ended, an unmanned sample-return mission to the Red Planet’s moon, Phobos, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The rocket was the powerful Zenit 25B.
An important aspect of the mission, designated as Phobos-Grunt, is that it is carrying China’s first mission to Mars.
The 115-kg Chinese payload is called Yinghuo-1 (萤火一号), a Chinese Mars-exploration space probe which will separate from the main Phobos-Grunt spacecraft in October 2012 and orbit Mars for more than a year. Its primary role is to study the Martian atmosphere. Yinghuo in Chinese means luminous fire.
Yinghuo-1 consists of a plasma package, a fluxgate magnetometer, a radio occultation sounder, and an optical imaging system. It has two solar arrays.
However, a hitch has occurred and Mars is once again proving to be unlucky for Russian interplanetary missions. Just after a spectacular lift off on Wednesday, a serious technical problem occurred placing the mission in what is known as a “safe mode.” Russian space scientists are now struggling hard to resolve the crisis in three days.
If they fail, the entire flight will be doomed, causing a major setback to both Russian and Chinese plans to fly to Mars. It will also cause a great embarrassment to Russia because it will only add to the string of failures in the country’s crisis-ridden space programs during the 50th year of the first human space flight.
On March 26, 2007, the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos firmed up an agreement which stipulated the construction and launching of Yinghuo-1. The mission is important because China has ambitious space plans which include flights to Mars and it has not ruled out the possibility of a human landing on the Red Planet.
The Phobos-Grunt mission took off 16 days prior to the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory which is tentatively scheduled to be launched from the Kennedy Space Center on November 25, 2011. It will land on the Gale crater in August 2012.
In addition to Yinghuo-1, Phobos-Grunt is also carrying another experiment of the Planetary Society. Called the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), it is an interplanetary mission to assess whether selected organisms can survive a deep space voyage.
The astrobiological experiment consists of 10 types of organisms, and is a joint venture of the Russian Space Research Institute, the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Moscow State University, the American Type Culture Collection, and the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Germany. The importance of this project needs to be viewed in the context of countries like the US, Russia, China, and Japan exploring the chances of embarking on a manned mission to Mars.
The ambitious $163 million Phobos-Grunt sample return mission, if successful, aims to aims to bring the first sample of a Martian moon back to earth for analysis and re-establish Moscow as a power in planetary exploration.
The flight plan envisages the deployment of the lander on the surface of Phobos in 2013 and returning to earth in August 2014. The touchdown on the surface of the Martian moon will be a trial run for India’s second mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-2, slated for launch in 2013. In this flight, the Russian-made lander will execute a soft landing on the south pole region of the moon.
Phobor-Grunt is the first interplanetary flight since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The challenging project envisages placing the spacecraft around Mars, landing a probe on the largest moon, Phobos, scooping up 50 grams of soil and bringing for the first time samples of the Martian moon back to earth.
Phobos orbits Mars at a radius of just under 10,000 km and scientists believe that it will reveal secrets about the origin of the planet.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Russian Federal Space Agency.
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