Russia launches probe to scoop up Mars moon dust
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia launched its first interplanetary mission in over two decades Wednesday, flying toward the Red Planet with the ambitious task of bringing back a chunk from the Martian moon Phobos.
The 5 billion-rouble ($163 million) Phobos-Grunt probe blasted off at 3:16 p.m. EST Tuesday from the Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan on a Zenit-2SB rocket, the Russian space agency said.
If successful, its three-year journey will be the first Soviet or Russian deep-space probe ever to completely fulfil its mission. It is an undertaking haunted by past failures, and has become a test of the Russian space industry.
When, in 1996, Russia's lone tentative mission to Mars broke up in the atmosphere after a botched launch, it was seen as the consequence of a generation of brain drain and crimped budgets.
Dust from Phobos, scientists say, could shed light on the genesis of the solar system while data collected in its orbit might help solve enduring mysteries such as whether Earth's neighbor has ever harbored life.
"At last humans should understand where they live, in what kind of universe and this is a step toward that," Alexander Degtyaryov, chief designer of rocketmaker Zenit, told Russian state television before the launch.
Russian scientists have dreamed of probing the Red Planet's potato-shaped satellite, a mere 22 km (13 miles) across, since the 1960s heyday of pioneering Soviet forays into space. But of two Phobos missions sent up in 1988, only one came near to reaching its goal, going silent within meters from the surface of the alien world.
"We have always been very unlucky with Mars," the mission's leading scientist Alexander Zakharov of Moscow's Space Research Institute told Reuters.
One of the first of the complex mission's many challenges will be landing on Phobos' pockmarked surface with virtually no gravity to help guide the craft in. The probe is armed with special thrusters to press it onto the surface of the moon.
Scientists hope Phobos-Grunt will touch down on a flat spot, free of rocks that could topple it, and find ground soft enough for its mechanical arms to scoop up a bit of the silvery moon.
"We don't know enough about the surface. We don't know how flat it is, what kind of rocks are there," Zakharov said.
The Russian probe must then lift off with a bellyful of alien dirt, navigate Mars' orbit and fly back safely to Earth.
Its planned atmospheric re-entry -- without a back-up parachute, radio or homing beacons -- may be the most nail-biting part of the mission.
The craft will rely entirely on its conical shape to slow its descent. Ground radar will track its re-entry.
"It is a very difficult mission precisely because it has many phases and the success of every phase depends on that of the last," Zakharov told Reuters.
Hitching a ride is China's first interplanetary spacecraft, the tiny 115-kg (250-pound) Yinghuo-1, which will work in orbit with Phobos-Grunt over one year to study Mars' atmosphere.
Phobos-Grunt will carry vials of Earth bacteria suited to extreme environments, plant seeds and tiny invertebrate animals known as water bears to see if they can survive in space.
The goal is to test part of a theory that life could have migrated between planets inside meteorites.
It will be the first time microbes carried by a spacecraft spend years rather than days in space and go beyond the protective bubble of Earth's magnetic field.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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