Russia to Return to Phobos?

ABANO TERME, ITALY--Despite crippling budgetary shortfalls, Russia's planetary exploration program is hoping to get at least one mission off the ground in the next few years. Speaking here yesterday at the 31st meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences, Mikhail Marov of the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics in Moscow unveiled detailed plans for a mission to return a rock sample from Phobos, Mars's largest moon. But the mission could be no more than a pipe dream unless Keldysh researchers raise money from international partners or private sources.

Russia hopes to succeed in a try for Phobos where its predecessor, the Soviet Union, failed: In the late 1980s, two giant Soviet landers sent to Phobos failed, one due to human error, the other due to a computer failure. Calamity struck Russian space science several years later, when the Mars 96 spacecraft exploded shortly after launch. To many, the Mars debacle sounded a death knell for Russian space science (Science, 20 June 1997, p. 1780).

Whether the new Phobos probe emerges like a Phoenix from the ashes may depend on just how big--and expensive--a bird it is. "We've learned a lot from these experiences," says Marov, such as coming up with a simple design that could be used for a variety of missions in the solar system. And rather than go with a pricey Proton rocket, Keldysh plans to launch the mission as early as December 2004 on a cheap Soyuz-type rocket.

Using an ion engine comparable to the one now powering NASA's Deep Space 1 probe, the 2-ton craft would reach Phobos in 28 months, land on its surface, and take pictures. Then the probe will drill more than a meter deep into the surface and extract a few hundred grams of samples that it will bring back to Earth in April 2008. It would be the first mission to bring back a sample from a satellite other than our own moon.

Although Russia has had a Phobos sample return mission on the books for years, most experts had presumed the project dead--or at least dormant--considering that the scant money in Russia available for space science is being gobbled up by the International Space Station. But Marov says the mission could be undertaken for as little as $120 million--"less than most of NASA's Discovery and New Millennium space missions." Teaming up with NASA or the European Space Agency might be one way to get the mission going, he says. Another way would be to gin up support from the private sector.

Rich Terrile of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, doubts whether the mission Marov and his colleagues envision will receive the funding it needs. "These people have trouble getting their salaries," he says. And NASA's current Mars exploration program doesn't leave any room for a new mission together with the Russians, says Terrile.