Russia Explores New Phobos-Grunt Mission to Mars

Russian space scientists this week floated the idea of building a new version of the Phobos-Grunt sample return spacecraft after the first model failed to escape Earth orbit and crashed in the Pacific on 15 January. But according to the head of the RussianFederal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Vladimir Popovkin, a new mission will depend on the outcome of talks with the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA about the possible inclusion of Russia in the ExoMars project, which plans to send missions to the red planet in 2016 and 2018.

Phobos-Grunt, Russia's most ambitious planetary probe in decades, was launched on 9 November with the aim of depositing a lander on Mars' moon Phobos and bringing back samples to Earth. It also carried a Chinese-made Mars orbiter, that country's first interplanetary probe. Although the spacecraft was lifted into Earth orbit faultlessly, it then failed to respond to commands from the ground and did not ignite its booster rockets which would set it on course for Phobos. Despite desperate attempts to reestablish contact by Roscosmos and ESA, the craft remained mute and its orbit degraded until the spacecraft plummeted into the ocean off southern Chile.

Lev Zelenyi, director of the Russian Academy of Science's Space Research Institute (IKI), said at a 1 February press conference that the team behind the mission was keen to try again. A repeat would only cost half as much as the first time round, he noted, because the infrastructure for the mission is already in place. Zelenyi told Science that this is still just an IKI proposal and is not yet funded. Phobos-Grunt-2 would be "improved and simplified," he says, and would use a Soyuz Fregat booster rather than the Zenit booster of the original craft.

But RSA chief Popovkin told the press yesterday that this all depends on ExoMars. Originally an ESA-only lander mission, it was merged with NASA plans in 2009 and ended up as a two-craft mission: the first in 2016 will be an orbiter devoted to atmospheric sampling, followed by a large lander in 2018 which would have the capability to dig below the surface. When budget cuts last year led to a reduction in U.S. participation in the project, Russia was invited to join in and perhaps provide launchers as well as instruments. Discussions are expected to be concluded this month; if Russia takes a significant role, then Phobos-Grunt-2 will be off the table.

Meanwhile, the Web site reports that the interagency commission that has been investigating the failure of Phobos-Grunt submitted its report to Popovkin on 30 January. Russian officials have made numerous suggestions that the failure was due to malign foreign influence, including U.S. scientific radars or covert military action, or natural phenomena such as solar flares and cosmic rays. But leaks reported on suggest the commission will point the finger at design errors and inadequate preflight testing of the spacecraft's flight control system.