Japan Plans Sample Return from Martian Moons

MMX on-orbit configuration (Credit: JAXA)

Japan is planning a complex mission that will study the moons of Mars and return soil samples to Earth.

Set for launch in September 2024, the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission would spend three years exploring Phobos and Deimos before departing in August 2028 for a return to Earth 11 months later.


Another Year, Another Russian Launch Failure

The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)
The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)

They came so close this time.

In another four days, the Russians would have gone a full year without losing a spacecraft in a launch mishap. That’s something that hasn’t happened since 2009-10. In another 30 days, they would have gone an entire calendar year without a launch failure.

The loss of the Progress 65 cargo ship during its launch aboard a Soyuz-U rocket today marks the latest in a string of failures stretching back more than seven years. Since May 2009, Russia has suffered 13 launch failures and four partial failures involving its stable of satellite boosters. (See table below)


Russians Intent on Trying to Explore Phobos Again

Phobos moon
Martian moon Phobos

If at first (second, third and fourth) you don’t succeed, the fifth time’s the charm.

That’s at least what Russia’s Space Research Institute is hoping. The institute is once again planning an ambitious mission to the Martian satellite Phobos despite repeated setbacks in exploring the potato-shaped moon over the past 25 years that are part of a half century of failure at the Red Planet.


SUNY Stony Brook Joins NASA’s SSERVI Team

NASA_SSERVI-LOGOSTONY BROOK, NY (SUNY Stony Brook PR) – Stony Brook is headed to outer space—virtually. The University has been selected as the lead institution for one of NASA’s nine new Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) teams that will bring researchers together in a virtual setting to focus on space science and human space exploration.

The Stony Brook project, “Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration” (RIS4E), led by Timothy Glotch, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, is composed of 13 institutions in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and will tackle scientific questions about the Moon, near-earth asteroids, and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.


SwRI Team Part of NASA’s New Solar System Exploration Virtual Institute

NASA_SSERVI-LOGOBOULDER, Colo. (SwRI PR) — NASA has selected a team led by Southwest Research Institute to be a founding member of the agency’s new Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

The recently formed team, known as the Institute for the Science of Exploration Targets, or ISET, will help build fundamental knowledge of the worlds directly accessible by astronauts in the future — such as the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and the satellites of Mars — by researching their origin, evolution and physical properties, as well as what their relatively pristine records tell us about the history of the Solar System.


JPL Explores Sending CubeSats to Phobos

by Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Imagine retrieving a soil sample from the Martian moon Phobos and returning it to Earth using two spacecraft so small you can hold them in your hands.

That’s just one of seven advanced inner Solar System missions using Cubesats that are being explored by Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers under a study funded by the NASA Innovative Advance Concepts (NIAC) Program, which looks at technologies that are still about a decade away.


Russia Blames Radiation for Loss of Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft

Phobos-Grunt in preparation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Roscosmos says that radiation in low Earth orbit fried Phobos-Grunt’s computer, an explanation that not everyone is buying:

“The most likely reason, in the opinion of the commission, was the local impact of heavily charged space particles that led to a failure in the memory of the main onboard computer in the second stage of flight,” [Roscosmos Head Vladimir] Popovkin told Russian news agencies in Voronezh, a town 450 km (280 miles) south of Moscow.

A burst of space radiation caused the onboard computers to reboot and go into standby mode, he said.


Phobos-Grunt Sleeps With the Fishes

Phobos-Grunt in orbit around the Earth. (Credit: Ralph Vandeberg -- used by permission)

The derelict Phobos-Grunt spacecraft has returned to Earth in a crash more spectacular than Tim Tebow’s flame-out in New England last night. Preliminary reports have the spacecraft re-entering in the South Pacific off the coast of Chile. However, the Twitterosphere is abuzz with alternate reports of it coming down over Brazil. A definite answer is due within the next day. There have been no reports of injuries.


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.

Phobos-Grunt Undergoes Vacuum Chamber Tests

Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft


Experts of Lavochkin R&D prepare Phobos-Grunt spacecraft for electrical tests in thermal vacuum chamber. Ground hardware and harness mating is almost finished. The spacecraft will be accommodated in the chamber in the nearest future. The tests are to confirm spacecraft systems’ proper functioning in the environment close to the real one.

The launch of the spacecraft which is to return soil of Martian moon Phobos to the Earth is slated for late 2011.

In addition to conducting in depth studies of Phobos and Mars, the spacecraft will carry a Chinese sub-satellite that will orbit the planet and instruments from a number of other nations, including France. (more…)

Russians Aim for Landings on Moon, Mercury, Phobos and Europa

During the International Academy of Astronautics Summit on Wednesday, Roscosmos Head Anatoly Perminov laid out Russia’s ambitious plans for Solar System exploration, which includes a sample return from Phobos and the Moon as well as landings on the planet Mercury and Jupiter’s moon Europa. The meeting, which was aimed at deepening international cooperation in space, was attended by 27 heads of space agencies.

The Russian space agency and ITAR-TASS reported on Perminov’s comments, which also included remarks about nuclear propulsion, climate change monitoring, asteroid missions, space situational awareness, and the International Space Station.


Phobos Downgraded From Solid Moon to Giant Rubble Pile

This image of Phobos’s surface was obtained by the Super Resolution Channel (or SRC, a part of the High Resolution Stereo Camera experiment) on board ESA’s Mars Express on 3 August 2008 (orbit 5889). The distance from the moon’s centre was 656 km, and the image resolution is 6 m/pixel. The original image has been corrected for mirror distortion. Credits: ESA/ DLR/ FU Berlin (G. Neukum)


Mars Express encountered Phobos last night, smoothly skimming past at just 67 km, the closest any manmade object has ever approached Mars’ enigmatic moon. The data collected could help unlock the origin of not just Phobos but other ‘second generation’ moons.

Something is not right about Phobos. It looks like a solid object but previous flybys have shown that it is not dense enough to be solid all the way through. Instead, it must be 25-35% porous. This has led planetary scientists to believe that it is little more than a ‘rubble pile’ circling Mars. Such a rubble pile would be composed of blocks both large and small resting together, with possibly large spaces between them where they do not fit easily together.


Photo of the Day: Stickney Crater on Phobos

Stickney Crater (Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA)
Stickney Crater (Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA)

Stickney Crater, the largest crater on the martian moon Phobos, is named for Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall, mathematician and wife of astronomer Asaph Hall. Asaph Hall discovered both the Red Planet’s moons in 1877.

Over 9 kilometers across, Stickney is nearly half the diameter of Phobos itself, so large that the impact that blasted out the crater likely came close to shattering the tiny moon. This stunning, enhanced-color image of Stickney and surroundings was recorded by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed within some six thousand kilometers of Phobos in March of 2008.

Even though the surface gravity of asteroid-like Phobos is less than 1/1000th Earth’s gravity, streaks suggest loose material has slid down inside the crater walls over time. Light bluish regions near the crater’s rim could indicate a relatively freshly exposed surface. The origin of the curious grooves along the surface is mysterious but may be related to the crater-forming impact.

Roskosmos Delays Phobos-Grunt to 2011

Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft
Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft

As reported earlier, Roskosmos has decided to postpone a planned sample return from the Martian moon Phobos by two years to 2011, citing problems with integration and testing. Or, to put it more bluntly, to avoid the nation’s 21st straight failure at Mars.

The massive 12 ton Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was set for launch next month from Baikonur. It would be Russia’s first mission to the Red Planet since the ill-fated Mars 96 mission, which was lost in a booster failure.

The mission includes the 240-lb. Yinghou-1 sub-satellite supplied by China. This would be the first interplanetary mission by the Asian nation.