Russia Ends Planetary Hiatus, Targets Moon and Mars

Russia’s long hiatus in planetary exploration is set to end this year as the nation launches Phobos-Grunt, an ambitious effort to retrieve soil samples from the Martian moon.

The massive 8-ton spacecraft, set for launch later this year, would be one of the most ambitious missions ever launched to Mars. It will also be the first Mars spacecraft launched by Russia since the ill-fated Mars 96 mission, which plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

The vehicle will land probes on the surface of Phobos, collecting soil samples that will be returned to Earth for analysis. In addition to studying the moon and Mars, Phobos-Grunt will carry life to the Red Planet, Russia Today reports:

A special bio-container will take samples of life forms from Earth to the Martian moon Phobos.

“Apart from seeds, we plan to send four species of bacteria, fungi, maxillopoda, Nothobranchius guentheri and African chironomids on a space mission onboard Fobos Grunt in the second stage of the Biorisk experiment,” Natalia Novikova from the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems told ITAR-TASS.

“It is no less important to understand whether it is possible to bring to the Earth microorganisms from other planets or Earth microorganisms that have been to space,” Novikova said, adding that this research will help scientists to resolve the problem of planetary quarantine and protection in future manned interplanetary flights.

If it works, Phobos-Grunt would be the first successful effort to return soil from a Martian moon. It would also reverse a nearly 50-year record of failure. Of 20 missions launched by the Soviet Union and Russia, not one was a complete success.

If the mission is successful, Russia will use its experience to launch a similar mission to the moon called Luna Glob, Russia Today reports.

“We are working on the Luna Glob project. It is planned to launch the vehicle in 2012. It will fly around the Moon, select a landing space for the rover and other engineering and research vehicles, and study the lunar nucleus with the use of special penetrators,” said deputy head of the Lavochkin Research and Production Center Vladimir Yefanov.

The next stage of the project is planned to be a Russo-Indian expedition, which will deliver a lunar reconnaissance vehicle to the site chosen by the Luna Glob. Russia prepares to produce the reconnaissance vehicle, while India will possibly develop the orbiter, he said.

In related news, Roskosmos is in talks with ESA and NASA about participating in the planned ExoMars mission, which will search for life on the surface of the Red Planet. The main obstacle appears to be price; the mission cost has nearly doubled from €650 million to €1.2 billion.