It has been 15 years since Russia has attempted to send a spacecraft to another planet, but that dry spell is due to end next week with the launch of an ambitious mission to return soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos.
The project, called Phobos-Grunt ("grunt" is Russian for "soil") also includes a small Chinese spacecraft called Yinghuo 1 that is designed to orbit Mars, as well as an astrobiology experiment from the California-based Planetary Society which will test a theory that living organisms could have arrived on Earth inside meteorites.
"It's a very challenging mission. I know the Russians have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure success," Planetary Society projects director Bruce Betts told Discovery News.
Russia hasn't attempted an interplanetary mission since 1996 when a launch accident claimed its Mars 96 probe, which consisted of an orbiter, a lander and a drill to bore down into the Martian soil. That failure followed the 1988 and 1989 losses of a pair of Phobos probes.
After a two-year launch delay, Russia is aiming to try again with liftoff of an unmanned Zenit rocket carrying Phobos-Grunt on Nov. 8 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
If all goes as planned, 11 months later the spacecraft will put itself into an elliptical orbit around Mars, release China's orbiter to begin its year-long independent mission and gradually sync up with Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons.
Where Phobos and its sibling moon Deimos came from is one of the most puzzling questions about the solar system's formation.
The moons are tiny, relative to the size of Earth's moon, which is believed to have been formed from a cloud of debris left circling the planet after young Earth was smashed by an object about as big as Mars.
That scenario seems an unlikely explanation for Phobos and Deimos' births, said astronomer and planetary scientist Brett Gladman of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Another explanation that Phobos and Deimos are asteroids captured from the main asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter also taxes the laws of physics, Gladman added.
"There's no plausible theory I know of that you can take an escaped asteroid that came out of the main asteroid belt and get them in those orbits," Gladman told Discovery News.
Another option: Phobos and Deimos are protoplanets, leftover building blocks of the type of bodies that melded together to form the terrestrial planets.
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"That would be wildly exciting because there are no samples anywhere of small bodies that formed at that distance from the sun," Gladman said.
That theory is not without problems of its own, however, namely how the bodies could have formed that close to the sun.
"Phobos and Deimos present a puzzle that there's no well-understood, coherent explanation for," Gladman said. "That's what makes them so interesting."
Some answers should be coming from the Phobus-Grunt scientists, particularly those who will analyze soil samples returning from the Martian moon.
The exact landing date for the Phobos-Grunt descent module will be determined after the probe settles into orbit, but is expected to occur in February 2013. Up to about 5.5 ounces of tiny rocks and dirt will be collected by a robotic arm on the lander and scooped into a canister. The container and its protective capsule will then be ejected off the lander by springs and fire a maneuvering rocket to begin the trip back to Earth. The soil samples should arrive in August 2014.
Attached to the return capsule will be a small sealed container with 11 microorganisms from Earth.
"We're trying to see what happens when they're exposed to the environment of deep space," Betts said.
The Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, or LIFE, simulates conditions that microbes inside meteorites might have experienced. The experiment is intended to determine if the organisms could survive in space.
Similar experiments have been flown on the space shuttles, but the Phobos-Grunt mission will be the first time the microbes spend years, rather than days, in space. They also will be flying beyond the protective shell of Earth's magnetic field, and thus exposed to more and harsher radiation.
The LIFE samples include plant seeds, three species of tardigrades (commonly known as "water bears" ) and other micro-organisms, most of which have been found in extreme environments on Earth, including places of high radiation, high salt concentration and high — or extremely low — temperature. All three domains of life — bacteria, eukaryota and archaea — will be represented, Betts said.
The experiment also includes a soil sample from the Negev desert.
The goal of the study is to test one part of a theory that life could have evolved on one planet, such as Mars, and migrated to another, such as Earth, inside meteorites.
While the Phobos samples and LIFE experiment are flying back to Earth, Russia's lander will be continuing studies of the moon.
Also heading to Mars this month is NASA's Curiosity science laboratory, which is designed to assess if the Red Planet had or has the right ingredients for life.
Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is due to launch on Nov. 25.
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