Image: Phobos
This NASA image shows the Martian moon Phobos, believed to have once been an asteroid that was snagged by the Red Planet's gravity and then became an orbiting moon. A Russian mission to the moon will test whether living organisms can survive the ride to space and back.
updated 2/25/2009 12:47:38 PM ET 2009-02-25T17:47:38

No one knows if there is life on Mars, but if all goes well with a Russian science mission later this year, there will be life on the Martian moon Phobos — for a short time anyway.

An assortment of critters and microbes are scheduled to make a round-trip journey to Phobos as passengers aboard a Russian spacecraft, scheduled to launch in October.

The mission, called Phobos-Grunt, aims to return samples of the Martian moon to Earth for analysis. It will be the first Russian-led mission to Mars since the loss of the Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 probes in 1988 and the botched launch of the Mars 96 spacecraft.

"I wish them luck," said University of Colorado planetary scientist Larry Esposito, who was a science team member on two of the failed Russian missions.

He's not part of the latest Russian endeavor, though he is very interested in learning more about Phobos, which is believed to be an asteroid that was pinned into orbit by the planet's gravity and became an adopted moon.

"It's an opportunity to look at a primitive body in the solar system," Esposito said.

In addition to planetary sciences, two teams of researchers are interested in learning how living organisms fare during the three-year round-trip journey to Mars.

The Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society is flying 10 different species in a small canister to test a theory that life could have been carried to Earth inside meteorites. The samples include tardigrades — also known as water bears — seeds and microscopic bacteria.

"The organisms are being sent in a dormant state, like spores," program manager Bruce Betts told Discovery News.

Upon return to Earth, the organisms will be revived and tested to see if they can reproduce.

Russia's Space Research Institute in Moscow has a more ambition plan. Scientists there are proposing to send crustaceans, mosquito larvae, bacteria and fungi to visit Phobos and then return the critters to Earth. The point of the Russian experiment is to is study how cosmic radiation affects living organisms during the various stages of flight.

Phobos-Grunt — "grunt" is a Russian word for "soil" — also includes a small satellite built by China. Yinghuo-1 will ride piggyback with Phobos-Grunt and then be released for an independent study of Mars.

NASA and the European Space Agency are developing a mission to retrieve rock and soil samples from Mars in an attempt to learn if the planet ever supported life. Astrobiologist Jack Farmer, with Arizona State University in Tempe, sees the Phobos-Grunt mission as a good opportunity to test techniques and procedures to assure Mars samples do not become contaminated upon reaching Earth, and vice-versa.

"Containment is a big issue," said Farmer, who served on a National Research Council panel that recently concluded a review of planetary protection procedures. "NASA has a stringent view of planetary protection, particularly from places that had the potential to harbor life."

Phobos is not regarded as a potential haven for extraterrestrial life, but it hasn't been ruled out either. Its visitors will remain contained during their stay on Phobos, but even if they were somehow released, Farmer believes their chances of survival are very slim.

"There's always a finite risk associated with these kinds of events," he said.

An earlier version of this report misstated the location of Arizona State University.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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