Russia’s Ambitious Phobos-Grunt Mission Set to Launch on Wednesday

Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

A Zenit-2SB rocket with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was moved to Launch Complex 45 on Sunday in preparation for a Wednesday launch to the Red Planet, Rososmos PAO reports.

Phobos-Grunt (“Soil”) is the first Russian mission to Mars in 15 years. At 13.2 metric tons, it is one of the largest and most ambitious planetary missions ever launched, with the primary goal of returning up to 200 grams (.44 lbs.) 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 a Chinese orbiter. The spacecraft contains instruments and experiments from France, Finland, Bulgaria, and The Planetary Society.

After arrival at the Martian moon, Phobos-Grunt will send a landing vehicle to the surface. The vehicle will collect soil samples using a piston-driven robotic arm similar to the systems used on Luna 20 and Luna 24 on the moon in the 1970’s. Materials will be placed in a cylindrical container on a rocket mounted on top of the landing vehicle.

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 lander will continue surface analysis for a year, including heating up soil samples to measure their properties.

It’s an ambitious plan that will pay off enormously if it works. “Any one of these critical stages goes wrong, and the whole mission is compromised,” says Francis Rocard, who runs solar system exploration programs at CNES, which is supplying three Phobos surface instruments.