China Reaches For the Red Planet

Joint project with Russia anticipates retrieving soil from the Martian moon Phobos

4 min read

China is getting ready to participate in its first interplanetary enterprise, teaming up with Russia, in a daring attempt to retrieve samples from the Martian moon Phobos. The Phobos-Grunt mission--grunt is the Russian word for soil--is scheduled to launch in October 2009, with the samples set to arrive on Earth in 2012 [see photo, ”Mock-up”]. If Phobos turns out to have been formed from Mars, the mission will provide a shortcut to obtaining ancient Martian soil. In any case, Phobos-Grunt is Russia's only scheduled planetary mission for the next 10 years, and it is the first sample-return effort since Apollo, more than 30 years ago.

The China National Space Administration and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) signed a formal agreement in March that will allow China to send a small satellite called the CDP-1 to Martian orbit, piggybacking on the Phobos-Grunt orbiter. According to Alexander Zakharov of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, project scientist for the Phobos-Grunt mission, the CDP-1 would test a deep-space tracking system, measure the various constituents of the Martian atmosphere, and study the plasma field around Mars during a one-year period. The Chinese are also contributing a thermal differential analyzer for the gas-chromatograph system, to be used in analyzing the elements contained in soil samples taken from Phobos before they are brought back to Earth. The instrument is being built by the Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute.

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