Breakdown of the Phobos-Grunt (soil) probe. In addition to the lander, a Chinese satellite would be deployed to orbit and study the planet Mars. Credit: IKI
It’s been over a week and Russia’s Phobos-Grunt space mission is still stuck in Earth orbit. So close yet so far. Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, said the craft is in control of its flight and keeping a stable orientation to the sun, allowing it generate electricity. Unfortunately, no one on the ground can “talk” to the probe and tell it to fire the two rockets that would send it on its intended mission to Mars and its largest moon Phobos.
When scheduling an interplanetary mission launch, scientists take advantage of favorable alignments between Earth and its target. For Mars, these “windows” occur every 26 months and last just several weeks. This mission window will close in early December. After that, it’s a what-goes-up-must-come-down scenario with the craft expected to burn up in the atmosphere sometime in December or early January. Not exactly the gift from Santa we were expecting under the Christmas tree.
The re-entry capsule that will deliver Phobos soil back to Earth. Credit: TsAGI
At 29,000 lbs., Phobos-Grunt is lot of material, but its fate will likely be the same as that of the recent UARS (Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite) and German X-ray satellite ROSAT. Expect it to burn up, fuel and all, in the atmosphere somewhere over the ocean. One part is almost certain to survive however – the sample return capsule intended to deliver 7 ounces of Phobos’ soil back to Earth in 2014.
If the probe can’t fulfill its mission, we’ll miss out on some incredible science, photography and one little curiosity. Ever heard of the Phobos monolith? Some fringe sites portray it as actual monolith akin to the one in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, while others believe it to be a pyramid. As usual, imagination sometimes gets the better of us. The object is about 15 feet across and somewhat fuzzy – especially if you zoom in – which makes it that much easier to picture it as something it isn’t.
The Phobos 'monolith' at left. At right is another section of the original image that shows additional boulders casting long shadows on the surface of the moon. Credit: NASA
The photos above were taken by Mars Global Surveyor and are parts of a much larger image. When I saw it initially, I thought the ‘monolith’ looked like a big rock partially buried in the moon’s dusty soil. To prove the likelihood of this hypothesis, I explored the entire image and wasn’t surprised to find a smattering of additional boulders strewn about the landscape. Except for their varying sizes, they look remarkably like the ‘monolith’. So we either have multiple monoliths or – much more likely – boulders that landed at various points on the surface following an ancient impact on the moon.
Click on the panel above to see the original large image file and have a look around for yourself. The exercise will show you that it’s important to get your hands on the original data when dealing with fantastic conjectures about this or that celestial body or phenomenon. Those with an agenda will often crop or enhance photos to lead you down a spurious path.
Homestake vein appears to be a harder layer of rock that may have formed in a hydro-thermal process involving water. Credit: NASA/JPL
Despite the potential setback for Phobos exploration, the Mars rover Opportunity has been crunching its way across Mars for nearly 8 years, racking up 21.25 miles on its odometer. The rover is presently overwintering near the lip of Endeavour Crater , where the science team is investigating a curious vein of rock named Homestake using instruments on the rover’s arm.
Three generations of Mars rovers. Sojourner, the first and smallest, explored Mars in 1997. At 2 feet long, it's tiny in comparison to Curiosity. The new rover is designed for a 2-year primary mission and 3 to 12 miles of travel inside the 96-mile-diameter Gale Crater.
If all goes well, Mars studies will take an enormous leap at 9:25 a.m. (CST) next Friday November 25 when the Curiosity rover launches atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Due to land on Mars next August, the car-sized rover will photograph, sample and study layers of clay and sulfate-rich minerals on the slopes of a 3-mile-high mountain in Gale Crater. Both kinds of materials form in a water-rich environment. While not designed to detect life, Curiosity will be able to determine whether Mars was once conducive to the formation of life based on what it finds in those layers.
I’m saving the best for last. The manner in which the rover will descend to the surface using the ‘sky crane’ technique is unique to say the least. Rather than describe it, I’d like you to watch the video. The simulation is so realistic I found it positively thrilling and think you will, too.
After you’re finished with that one and crave more, here’s another. It begins at Earth and includes sound effects you wouldn’t naturally hear, because the craft is above the atmosphere. Once in the Martian atmosphere, the sounds are accurate. This video takes you a step further to show how Curiosity will drill into a rock and analyze its composition. Don’t forget to hit the full-screen button and turn up the sound. Can you think of a better way to put your tax dollars to work?