7 April 2009—Russia will announce a two-year delay of its flagship planetary mission this month, a project participant told IEEE Spectrum.
The 11-ton Phobos-Gruntspacecraft, designed to land on the surface of the Martian moon Phobos and return samples of its soil back to Earth, was scheduled to lift off October 2009. A number of science institutions around the world have contributed instruments and experiments for the ambitious project. However, according to Francis Rocard, a scientist at CNES, the French space agency, which supplied some of the scientific payloads for the project, Russian space officials are about to announce a postponement of Phobos-Grunt’s launch to 2011.
”What we know is that they are waiting for the 2009 budget [to be finalized], and then they will announce a delay,” says Rocard. Since the orbital mechanics only allow launches to Mars once every 25 to 26 months, the next opportunity for the Phobos-Grunt mission to leave Earth would not come until the end of 2011 or beginning of 2012.
Many reports cite unnamed sources saying there were problems with the spacecraft development during 2008 and 2009, but Russian space officials continue to insist that the mission will leave for Mars as scheduled during the 2009 launch window.
The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft would be the first Russian attempt to send the planetary probe beyond the Earth orbit since 1996, when another mission to the Red Planet involving wide international participation ended in a launch mishap. In the ensuing years, the Phobos-Grunt project had acquired an important political purpose: to prove that Russia was returning to deep-space exploration and could lead a major international science project. As a result, Russian scientific and engineering managers in charge of the project were probably under political pressure to maintain the promised launch date despite overwhelming odds. Although Phobos-Grunt has been on the books since the end of the 1990s, the real funding for the project started in 2007—way too late for the development of such a complex mission, say experts.
Representatives of the Russian space agency and the state-controlled Russian press continued to actively promote the project as late as the beginning of 2009. In the meantime, anonymous postings on Internet forums—such as Novosti Kosmonavtiki , a magazine popular among Russian space engineers—were saying that many critical aspects of the mission, such as flight control computers and software, were in the embryonic state of development, making an October launch seem impossible and calling into question even the 2011 launch date. Critics have long called the Phobos-Grunt an overly ambitious enterprise that is beyond the current experience of a Russian space industry battered by a decade of economic crisis, dwindling staff, inadequate funding, and poor management.
”All this is going to end up in a scandal,” says Roald Sagdeev, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and former director of the Space Research Institute (IKI), in Moscow, which oversees the science program of the Phobos-Grunt mission. ”This project became so politically loaded that people involved will probably be reluctant to admit the true state of affairs until the very last minute,” he says.
Lev Zelenyi, the current director of IKI, would not comment when Spectrum questioned him about the status of the mission.
Russia is not alone in having to delay a Mars mission. In December 2008, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, featuring the largest rover yet to drive on the surface of Mars, was postponed from 2009 to 2011. In October 2008, the launch of a European rover, which was expected to focus on the search for life on Mars, had to be pushed back from 2013 to 2016.