The Rocky Soviet Road To Mars

by

Larry Klaes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         The planet Mars has long been considered the first planet beyond
    Earth upon which humans will land and explore, possibly within the
    first decades of the Twenty-First Century.  Already the United States
    and Soviet Union have sent a series of unmanned probes to the Red Planet, 
    serving as "scouts" for eventual manned missions long in the planning 
    stages. 
 
         While the United States can boast of having had successful Mars 
    missions, the Soviet Union has been less fortunate:  The recent demise 
    of their two PHOBOS spacecraft stand as a testament to the Soviet's 
    rocky road to the Red Planet.
 
         It is important to look back on the Soviet's history of unmanned 
    Mars missions to see what has gone wrong, what they have achieved, and 
    what can be learned to create better exploration projects.  Such studies 
    will allow future Soviet and U.S. probes to gain more information and to 
    pave the way for successful manned journeys in the future.
 
         The first attempts to explore Mars by spacecraft began in 1960 
    from the Soviet Union, just three years after the nation had placed 
    the first artificial satellite, SPUTNIK 1, into Earth orbit.  On 
    October 10 and 14, two probes were launched from the Tyuratam Space 
    Center towards an Earth parking orbit before their planned journey to 
    Mars.  The first probe, designated MARS 1960A by the West, had a 
    failure in the third stage turbopumps of its A-2-e (MOLNIYA) rocket 
    launcher and did not obtain the desired orbit.  The second probe, 
    MARS 1960B, suffered a similar fate.  Though no details have ever 
    been released on these probes by the Soviets, they may have weighed 
    850 kilograms (1,870 pounds) and were intended to flyby the target 
    planet in May of 1961.  
 
         There was also the rumor that Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev, who 
    was attending a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New 
    York at the time of the launches, had brought a model of the vehicles 
    with him to show off Soviet technological prowess at the Assembly. 
    When LUNA 2 became the first spacecraft to reach Earth's Moon in 1959, 
    Kruschev had personally delivered a model of the lunar probe to U.S. 
    President Dwight Eisenhower during a summit meeting; but when the Mars 
    launches failed, Kruschev's model never appeared in public.  
 
         A third Mars probe mission in 1960 was believed for years to 
    have been tied in to reports of a major rocket disaster, which the
    Soviets did not admit to officially, until a press release by 
    Aleksandr Bolotin in the Soviet weekly magazine OGONYOK in April of 
    1989.  The article stated that, contrary to information gathered 
    earlier by Soviet space expert James Oberg, a rocket which exploded 
    on the launch pad at Tyuratam on October 24, 1960 was not carrying a 
    Mars probe, but was an attempt to launch an R-16 InterContinental 
    Ballistic Missile (ICBM), better known in the West as the SS-7 SADDLER, 
    which was designed and built by the Yangel Bureau.  The R-16 explosion
    killed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of engineers and technicians at the    
    launch site, including the Soviet official in charge of the rocket 
    project, Field Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin, Commander in Chief of the 
    Strategic Rocket Forces.  There may have been a third unsuccessful 
    Soviet attempt to send an unmanned probe to Mars by the end of 1960 
    after the first two failures, but this has yet to be confirmed.
 
         Despite all that had gone wrong with their Mars probes in 1960, 
    the Soviets were ready to send unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet 
    again when the next launch window arrived in 1962 (A launch window is 
    the period of time when Earth and Mars are so aligned in their solar 
    orbits that a relatively large payload can be sent using the least 
    amount of rocket energy, saving both time and fuel).  The first of the 
    three probes launched that year, MARS 1962A, did obtain Earth parking 
    orbit on October 24, but half an hour after the orbital insertion, the 
    rocket stage attached to the probe - which would have sent the vehicle 
    on to Mars - unexpectedly exploded.  The resulting debris sailed on, 
    and was soon picked up by several Ballistic Missile Early Warning System 
    (BMEWS) stations in the Northern Hemisphere.  There were a few anxious 
    moments that the debris might have been an incoming Soviet nuclear 
    missile attack on the U.S. (the launch had occurred during the height 
    of the Cuban Missile Crisis), but the defense computers quickly 
    determined that this was not the case, and World War Three was abated.
 
         A second Mars probe was launched from Tyuratam on November 1, 
    and it became the first such Soviet vehicle to actually leave Earth 
    orbit.  The Soviets officially announced the probe's existence and
    intentions to the rest of the world, and designated it MARS 1.  The 
    Soviets also released pictures and descriptions of the craft:  MARS 1 
    was a 893.5 kilogram (1,970 pound) spacecraft consisting of a 
    cylindrical "bus" 3.3 meters (10.89 feet) long which housed both 
    scientific instruments and course correction engines.  The bus was 
    flanked on either side by solar panels which supplied power to the 
    instruments, and a high-gain "umbrella" antenna located on the front 
    of the bus.  This same basic design has been used for Soviet Mars and 
    Venus probes from that time to the present, albeit with some upgrades 
    and modifications.
 
         The main objectives of MARS 1 were to study the interplanetary 
    medium on its way and to flyby Mars at a distance of less than 11,000 
    kilometers (6,600 miles) and to photograph the planet's surface.  MARS 1 
    was to have also sent back measurements on Mars' magnetic and radiation 
    fields, cosmic radiation, micrometeoroid impacts, and even indications 
    of organic compounds on the planet using a "spectroreflexometer" device.  
    The mission proceeded well through early 1963.  On March 16, MARS 1 
    broke the distance record for interplanetary communication recently 
    set by the first successful U.S. Venus probe, MARINER 2 - 86.7 million 
    kilometers (52.02 million miles).  Sadly, this was to have been one of 
    the probe's last accomplishments.  Several days later, Soviet controllers 
    noted that MARS 1 was having troubles with its orientation system, and 
    when the craft could not keep its communications antenna locked on Earth, 
    all contact was lost.  It is believed that MARS 1 did fly past its 
    target planet on June 19 at a distance of 193,000 kilometers (115,800 
    miles), but returned no data.  The Soviets blamed an errant meteoroid 
    which struck the probe and broke the ground link.  Some Western experts 
    blamed the loss on a faulty attitude control and/or communications system 
    which had reached its technological design limits.  In any event, it was 
    a dark sign of things to come for the Soviet Mars program.  
 
         Three days after MARS 1 had been launched in 1962, another Mars 
    probe, unofficially designated MARS 1962B, was put into Earth orbit; 
    but like 1962A, it too broke up before leaving orbit.  The spacecraft
    and rocket debris eventually burned up upon re-entering Earth's
    atmosphere in the ensuing months, the last pieces disintegrating on 
    January 19, 1963.  The Soviets did not acknowledge its existence.
 
         The next good window for launches to Mars took place in late 
    1964, and this time the Soviets were not alone in exploring Mars with 
    spacecraft.  The United States sent two unmanned probes to Mars on 
    flyby photographic missions:  The first one, MARINER 3, ceased 
    functioning soon after its launch on November 5 when the protective 
    shroud around the craft failed to eject.  Unable to open its solar 
    panels to receive energy, the probe's batteries were soon exhausted 
    and MARINER 3 drifted off into solar orbit dead.  NASA scientists
    quickly corrected the problem with its sister probe, MARINER 4, and 
    it was successfully sent to Mars on November 28.
 
         Two days later, the Soviets launched a Mars probe with the generic 
    name of ZOND 2 (Zond is the Soviet word for probe).  Its intentions 
    were similar to the MARINERs, and there was speculation in the West
    that ZOND 2 also carried a capsule lander to study the Martian surface.
    The evidence for a lander was based on its estimated weight of 1,145 
    kilograms (2,519 pounds), 251.5 kilograms (553.3 pounds) heavier than 
    MARS 1, which had no lander, plus the fact that ZOND 2 seemed to have 
    been launched to minimize its arrival speed at Mars, thus reducing the 
    problems of atmospheric entry for a lander.  One device verified aboard 
    the spacecraft was a set of six experimental plasma (ion) engines 
    designed to assist in attitude control.  In spite of this technical 
    innovation, it was noted soon after launch that ZOND 2's initial power 
    supply was fifty percent below the expected level.  This may have 
    contributed to the loss of communications with the craft in April of 
    1965.  ZOND 2 was later estimated to have flown past Mars at a distance 
    of roughly 1,488 kilometers (930 miles) on August 6, 1965, less than 
    one month after MARINER 4 flew by Mars and obtained the first close-up 
    photographs of the Martian surface (twenty-two in all).  
 
         There was some concern for a while that ZOND 2 had actually impacted 
    on the planet, as it was not decontaminated of Earth micro-organisms 
    before its launch.  Western scientists feared that the bacteria might 
    "interfere" with any Martian organisms present, or could at least confuse 
    future missions searching for life into thinking that Earth organisms 
    possibly deposited by ZOND 2 were native to Mars.  In any event, no 
    impact has ever been confirmed.
 
         Though the Mars launch window had passed by 1965, the Soviets sent 
    up another ZOND probe on July 18 of that year.  ZOND 3 was designed to
    be an engineering test of spacecraft systems for future Mars and Venus 
    missions, no doubt due in part to the concern over previous mission
    failures.  ZOND 3 flew past the far side of Earth's Moon on July 20, 
    where it took the first photographs of the lunar farside since LUNA 3 in 
    1959.  Soviet controllers then sent the probe on a trajectory out to the 
    orbit of Mars.  As ZOND 3 sailed outward, it transmitted back its lunar 
    photos at various distances in a test of the communications system.  
    ZOND 3 continued to transmit data on interplanetary space until March of 
    1966, when it was 153.5 million kilometers (337.7 million miles) from 
    Earth.  Though ZOND 3 did cross the orbit of Mars, the craft was nowhere 
    near the planet at the time.
         
         The 1967 launch window to Mars was passed up by both the Soviets 
    and U.S. as they concentrated on sending spacecraft to explore Venus 
    during that period, as well as preparing for more ambitious unmanned 
    missions to the Red Planet.  While the U.S. was building its next series 
    of more sophisticated flyby probes - MARINER 6 and 7, which completed 
    successful photographic surveys in 1969 - the Soviets were testing their 
    next generation of Mars explorers in the atmosphere and in Earth orbit.
    Throughout the late 1960s, there were reports of the Soviets testing a 
    lander capsule aeroshell and parachute system for a future series of 
    unmanned Mars landers.  These flight models were dropped at high 
    altitudes from aircraft to test their aerodynamic capabilities, much 
    as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the U.S. was doing with its 
    VOYAGER mock-ups (later to be known as VIKING) around the same time.
 
         In 1969, two (and possibly three) spacecraft of the new Soviet
    Mars exploration series were launched.  Weighing far more than any
    earlier Mars craft (approximately 3,500 kilograms/7,700 pounds), they 
    were sent aloft on the powerful D-1-e (PROTON) rocket booster.  These 
    probes most likely consisted of a flyby bus which would drop a lander 
    on the Martian surface as the bus headed on into solar orbit.  
    Unfortunately these latest spacecraft were plagued by old technical 
    problems:  MARS 1969A, launched March 27, was destroyed on its way 
    into an Earth parking orbit when the PROTON booster exploded in 
    mid-flight.  MARS 1969B, launched on April 14, may have been destroyed 
    in the same manner as its sister probe, as it too never achieved Earth 
    orbit.  A third member of this set, MARS 1969C, reportedly never even
    left the launch pad at Tyuratam, for reasons which are still unknown.
    All in all, it was not a glorious beginning to such an ambitious new
    program.
 
         Nineteen seventy-one was a very busy year for exploring Mars with 
    spacecraft, in part because the launch window was so favorable.  The 
    first U.S. and Soviet attempts failed miserably:  MARINER 8, launched 
    on May 9, ended up in the Atlantic Ocean instead of around Mars when an 
    autopilot fault in the ATLAS-CENTAUR rocket sent the craft off course.  
    The Soviets had equally bad luck the next day:  What might have been 
    officially designated a MARS probe instead became COSMOS 419 when the 
    vehicle failed to leave its parking orbit around Earth.  Initial success 
    was achieved nine days later, when MARS 2 escaped Earth's gravitational 
    well.  It was followed on May 28 by MARS 3.  The U.S. rounded out the 
    Mars launches two days after MARS 3 with MARINER 9, which also found 
    its way on to the fourth planet from the Sun.
 
         MARS 2 and 3 were more advanced than previous Soviet Mars probes:
    Weighing 4,650 kilograms (10,250 pounds) each, the probes carried two 
    450-kilogram (990-pound) landers designed to photograph and examine the 
    Martian surface.  The lander design was based on that of the 1966 LUNA 9 
    and 13 Moon probes:  A sphere kept upright by four metal "petals" which 
    opened around the lander's base after landing.  The crafts' main buses 
    contained rocket thrusters designed to brake the probes for insertion 
    into orbit around Mars, where they would serve both as scientific 
    stations and as orbital relays for the landers' signals back to Earth.  
    Even the project's design team was of a new generation, averaging less
    than thirty years in age.  The team was supervised by veteran mission 
    specialists.
 
         Although it was launched from Earth later, MARINER 9 arrived at
    the Red Planet earlier than its Soviet counterparts, and became the 
    first spacecraft to orbit Mars on November 14, 1971.  MARS 2 came 
    on the scene November 27, followed by MARS 3 on December 2.  While 
    this was going on, far below the vessels a global dust storm had 
    enveloped Mars, with no signs of abating.  For MARINER 9 this meant 
    few visible surface features to photograph while it waited for the 
    dust storm to clear, but for the Soviet probes the consequences were 
    far greater.
 
         Due to design limitations, the Soviet probes had to release their 
    landers before injecting themselves into Mars orbit; they could not 
    wait for the dust storm to end like MARINER 9 did.  MARS 2 ejected 
    its lander 4.5 hours before going into orbit.  The plan was for the
    lander to enter the thin Martian atmosphere at supersonic speeds
    protected from heat friction with the air by an aeroshield.  Once 
    past this critical phase of the descent, the shield would be ejected
    after a parachute was released to slow the craft even further.  Just 
    before touchdown, the lander would fire retrorockets to cushion the 
    landing impact to a survivable velocity.  On the surface, the metal 
    "petals" would open outward to balance the lander, which would 
    immediately start to relay a panoramic view of its surroundings to 
    the orbiting bus for transmission to Earth.  The lander would then 
    carry out various measurements of the immediate environment until its 
    battery power was exhausted.
 
         Sadly, the MARS 2 lander's mission was to be cut drastically short.
    Whether because of the dust storm or mechanical problems, the lander
    apparently crashed onto the surface at 45 degrees south/58 degrees east
    in the planet's southern hemisphere.  Though no data was returned from 
    the lander, it does hold the distinction of being the first human-made 
    vehicle to reach the surface of Mars.  The MARS 2 bus subsequently went 
    into an orbit ranging in altitude from 1,380 to 25,000 kilometers 
    (828 to 15,000 miles), circling the planet once every eighteen hours.
        
         MARS 3 initially had better luck than its counterpart.  Arriving 
    in orbit on December 2, the lander headed towards the surface, where 
    it came down three minutes later in Mars' southern hemisphere at 
    45 degrees south/158 degrees west between the regions Electris and 
    Phaethontis.  Ninety seconds later, the craft's timer mechanism ordered 
    a panoramic scan of the lander's surroundings; but just twenty seconds
    into the scan, the signals ceased.  A partial picture was returned,
    but it "did not reveal any noticeable difference in the contrast of 
    details", according to a Soviet report.  Once again the Soviets blamed 
    the dust storm which was engulfing Mars as the reason for the demise 
    of the lander - it may have been saturated with fine sand, or knocked
    over by strong winds - but some Western analysts suggest that the 
    MARS 3 orbiter had some telemetry problems, not the lander.
 
         With the lander missions now permanently defunct, Soviet 
    controllers concentrated on the scientific studies made by the orbiters.  
    Photographing the planet's surface proved frustrating, as the dust storm 
    continued to blot out most Martian features.  After several weeks the 
    imaging part of the mission was given secondary status, while MARS 2 
    and 3 concentrated on measuring the Martian atmosphere and surface.  
    The orbiters discovered atomic hydrogen and oxygen in the upper 
    atmosphere, and that the average temperature on the surface ranged 
    from 13 degrees Celsius (55.4 degrees Fahrenheit) at noon to -110 
    degrees Celsius (-230 degrees Fahrenheit) at night.  Portions of the 
    planet's night side were found to be twenty to twenty-five degrees 
    warmer than some of their immediate surroundings.  Atmospheric pressure 
    on the ground was recorded at 5.5 to 6 millibars (by comparison, air 
    pressure on Earth averages 1,013 millibars at sea level), and water 
    vapor was scarce.  The orbiters were subsequently turned off in March 
    of 1972, several months after the dust storm had settled down.  It 
    should be noted that MARS 2 and 3 were the first Soviet spacecraft to 
    actually arrive at the Red Planet while still communicating with Earth.
 
         By 1973 the United States had announced plans to send two 
    spacecraft to Mars which would not only study the planet from orbit
    in more detail than before, but also land two vehicles which would 
    study the Martian surface and search for signs of micro-organisms.
    These probes were known as VIKING 1 and 2, and would be launched 
    from Cape Canaveral in Florida in late 1975.
 
         Perhaps spurred on by this ambitious U.S. plan for exploring Mars,
    the Soviets launched their most complex mission to Mars in 1973, in
    an attempt to gain some prestige, after the U.S.'s impressive
    accomplishments at the Red Planet.  Since 1973 did not possess the most 
    favorable window to launch an orbiter-lander combination Mars probe 
    (the PROTON rocket could not handle the weight load of such a vehicle 
    in such a "steep" window), the exploration tasks were divided amongst 
    four vessels:  MARS 4 and 5 would orbit the planet, relaying not only 
    scientific data but telemetry from the landers, which would be deposited 
    on the Martian surface by MARS 6 and 7.  The buses of the landers would 
    sail on into solar orbit after delivering their loads.  MARS 4 was
    launched first on July 21, followed by MARS 5 four days later.  MARS 6 
    was sent aloft the following month, on August 5, with MARS 7 bringing 
    up the rear three days later.
 
         Being the first of the series launched, MARS 4 also arrived at Mars
    first on February 10, 1974; but instead of going into orbit as planned,
    the probe's main braking engine failed to fire, and MARS 4 drifted past
    the planet at an altitude of 2,200 kilometers (1,320 miles) before 
    heading off into an unscheduled orbit around the Sun.  MARS 4 did relay 
    a number of pictures of the Martian surface as it flew by the planet.
 
         MARS 5 reached the Red Planet just two days after its sister 
    orbiter, successfully firing its breaking engines for orbital insertion, 
    which ranged in altitude from 1,760 to 32,560 kilometers (1,056 to 
    19,536 miles), making one revolution around Mars in just over twenty-
    four hours.  In addition to its original scientific duties, MARS 5 also 
    had to serve as the communications relay for the MARS 6 lander, since 
    MARS 4 was no longer available to do the job.  Together with MARS 4, 
    MARS 5 took sixty images of the Martian surface, comparable in quality 
    to those taken by MARINER 9 two years earlier.  In fact, MARS 5 gave the 
    first serious evidence that most of Mars' surface was bright orange-red 
    in color (the color filters on MARINER 9 had malfunctioned very early in 
    its mission).  The Soviet probe's findings were later corroborated by the 
    VIKING orbiter images.  MARS 5 also found an ozone layer thirty kilometers 
    (eighteen miles) above the planet's surface.  In addition, the probe 
    revealed that the outermost layer of the atmosphere consisted of atomic 
    hydrogen twenty thousand kilometers (twelve thousand miles) above the 
    planet.  MARS 5 was the only Soviet Mars probe which accomplished all of 
    its planned tasks to date.  The Soviets did not reveal when the craft's 
    mission was terminated.
 
         MARS 7 was the first of the flyby/lander probes to arrive, the bus
    ejecting its lander towards the planet on March 9, 1974.  Unfortunately, 
    though the lander was intended to land at 50 degrees south/28 degrees 
    west, it instead missed the entire planet by 1,300 kilometers (780 miles), 
    apparently due to a major fault in either its solid-propellant motor 
    or attitude control system.  The second flyby/lander, MARS 6, was the 
    last of the set to reach Mars, successfully deploying its lander on 
    March 12.  The lander performed as designed during its descent to the 
    surface, relaying back to Earth the first direct atmospheric readings 
    of Mars, which seemed to indicate a high concentration of argon.  Two 
    minutes and twenty-eight seconds into the descent - just twenty seconds 
    away from touching down at 24 degrees south/25 degrees west - signals 
    from the lander ceased.  Why contact with the lander stopped is unknown, 
    but it was certainly a disappointing end to the series.  Even the argon 
    reading made by MARS 6 was found to be erroneous two years later by the 
    successful VIKING probes.
 
         A combination of discouragement and replanning - plus the great 
    accomplishments of the VIKING probes from 1976 to 1982 - was no doubt 
    part of the reason why the Soviets launched no more unmanned Mars 
    missions after the MARS 4-7 series until almost the end of the next 
    decade, when a new generation of probes and commitments to Mars 
    exploration were made with the PHOBOS series.
 
         PHOBOS was different from all previous Soviet Mars missions,
    not only in the fact that it was the first such project announced 
    by the Soviets to the world several years in advance of its launching, 
    but also in its spacecraft design and goals:  The 6,000 kilogram 
    (13,200 pound) probes were aimed to explore the relatively tiny Martian 
    moon Phobos (and possibly even its smaller natural satellite, Deimos) 
    with a number of small landers, a first in space history.  Studying 
    the Martian moons would also be of great benefit to future human 
    explorers, as the satellites' proximities to Mars and weak gravities
    serve as excellent "space stations" for crews preparing to land on Mars.
 
         Two PHOBOS spacecraft would be launched from Earth in the summer 
    of 1988 and go into orbit around Mars early the following year.  The 
    orbiters would wait several months, studying Mars and its moons while 
    they achieved the proper trajectory to flyby Phobos at the incredibly 
    low altitude of fifty meters (165 feet).  It would be at this point 
    that the orbiters would drop off three landers (one from PHOBOS 1 and 
    two from its sister craft), two of which would anchor themselves by 
    means of a harpoon into the dusty surface of the small moon, while the 
    other would use a metal bar to move across Phobos' surface by "hopping" 
    until its batteries ran out of power.  The landers would send images 
    and information about the moon to their orbiters, which would relay the 
    data to Earth.  The United States would play a vital role in the 
    communications aspect of the mission - just as the Jordell Bank radio 
    telescope in Great Britain had done for the Soviets in their Mars 
    missions two decades earlier - by using NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) 
    of radar to pick up PHOBOS' weak signals.  The complexities of the 
    mission and the international cooperation was meant to be a sign of 
    things to come in the Soviet's new ambitions towards exploring the Red 
    Planet.
 
         PHOBOS 1 left the launch pad at Tyuratam on July 7, 1988, aboard 
    the PROTON rocket booster.  PHOBOS 2 was sent to Mars on July 12.
    While the probes were in transit towards the Red Planet, studies of
    the Sun and the solar environment were being carried out.  On August 31,
    PHOBOS 1 was being prepared for an international solar experiment. 
    During one of the regular communication sessions with the probe, a 
    message with one character accidentally omitted was sent to the craft.
    This seemingly minor incident quickly snowballed as PHOBOS 1 was 
    subsequently given a computer command to shut off its attitude control 
    system.  The resulting error caused the probe to begin tumbling, aiming 
    its solar panels away from the Sun.  Power in the spacecraft dropped 
    dramatically until it could no longer function, and communications ceased.
    Despite several days of intense efforts by the Soviets to re-establish
    contact, PHOBOS 1 was permanently silent.
 
         Mission officials became extremely cautious about ensuring the 
    continued functioning of PHOBOS 2, as it was now the only PHOBOS
    spacecraft left to carry out the mission objectives.  But even their
    pampering was not enough to keep PHOBOS 2 from developing troubles of 
    its own:  As the probe neared Mars, the main fifty watt transmitter 
    malfunctioned, leaving only the five watt backup to keep the craft in 
    touch with Earth.  The main bus cameras and several scientific 
    instruments also malfunctioned, though they were later corrected as 
    PHOBOS 2 went into Mars orbit on January 29, 1989.  For the next two
    months, the craft spent its time examining Mars and Phobos, while 
    adjusting its altitude above the planet to match that of its target
    moon.  Placement of the two landers on the surface of Phobos was set 
    to occur around April 7.  
 
         On March 27, almost two months to the day after PHOBOS 2 was 
    placed in orbit around the Red Planet, controllers ordered the craft 
    to orient itself to take photographs of Phobos.  Since the probe's 
    main antenna was not on a separate swivel platform from the orbiter, 
    the entire craft had to be turned away from Earth while the picture 
    set was being taken.  It would then reorient itself to transmit the
    images to Earth.
 
         Instead, the technical problems which have haunted the Soviet
    Mars missions since their beginning caught up with PHOBOS 2:  The 
    orbiter turned away for the imaging, but did not turn back.  For two 
    hours after the mishap, Soviet controllers tried to raise the probe.
    They were rewarded for thirteen minutes when faint signals were received 
    from the craft, but soon after the signals disappeared and PHOBOS 2
    was not heard from again.  It was surmised that, like its sister probe,    
    PHOBOS 2 soon began to tumble without control from Earth, and lost
    all power when its solar panels moved away from direct sunlight.  
 
         Two main theories arose as to the cause of PHOBOS 2's silence:  
    Either a piece of debris - perhaps a meteor or even the probe's 
    jettisoned propulsion module - had struck the spacecraft, disorienting 
    it and pointing the antenna away from Earth, or the attitude control 
    system - possibly a faulty gyroscope - had malfunctioned when the craft 
    turned away from Earth to photograph its target moon, and could not aim 
    the spacecraft back at its planet of origin.  Project officials have 
    since come to agree that the second theory, mechanical failure, was the 
    culprit.  The Soviets officially wrote off PHOBOS 2 on April 18, 1989.  
    Ironically, the orbit of PHOBOS 2 might inadvertently cause the probe 
    to become the first human-made vehicle to reach the surface of the 
    Martian moon, though certainly not in a manner it was intended to.
 
         Before the PHOBOS probes were sent on their way, the Soviets had 
    outlined an ambitious program of Mars missions, leading up to a manned 
    landing by the year 2025.  While the timetables will most likely be 
    readjusted in light of the PHOBOS failures, it is hoped that the Soviets 
    will continue with their plans, undaunted by the past.  One new element 
    in the plans for exploration could be the launching of PHOBOS 3 in 1992, 
    the next favorable launch window to Mars.  Formerly the ground test 
    vehicle for its predecessors, PHOBOS 3 could be refurbished for a space 
    mission and sent out to take over the scientific tasks so abruptly 
    abandoned by PHOBOS 1 and 2.
 
         Other Soviet Mars vehicles include a combined orbiter/balloon/
    lander mission in 1994, where a French-made balloon with an instrument 
    package suspended underneath would float over the Martian surface 
    through the planet's thin atmosphere, while smaller probes would 
    either be soft-landed or penetrated into the reddish soil to take 
    direct readings of surface conditions.
 
         An ambitious project planned for launch in 1996 would involve
    a Phobos probe that would actually land on the surface of the Martian 
    moon and return samples of Phobos to Earth, while other spacecraft 
    instruments would remain on Phobos for further observations.
 
         The next project calls for a robot lander to place an unmanned 
    rover on the Martian surface, designed to explore the planet with a 
    far greater range than the immobile VIKING landers could.  If successful, 
    this could lead up to a joint rover/sample return mission conducted by 
    the Soviets and United States:  The U.S. would provide a rover that would 
    bring samples of Martian soil and rock to a Soviet lander, which would 
    then launch the precious cargo back to Earth for direct examination (if 
    the rover failed to function properly, the Soviet lander would still have 
    the ability to scoop up some soil at its touchdown site for return to 
    Earth).  The Twenty-First Century might also see a manned Soviet mission 
    to orbit Mars, with an eventual surface expedition as a prelude to 
    colonization.  These expeditions could be carried out as joint ventures 
    with the U.S. and other nations, creating numerous scientific and
    political benefits in the process.
 
         The Soviets have had a difficult three decades in exploring Mars 
    with spacecraft, but not without some important accomplishments.
    It is hoped that they will not be daunted by their setbacks, as it 
    should be realized that humans are still pioneering the exploration of 
    space, in spite of our numerous advances.  The time, effort, and human
    lives spent in reaching other worlds should not be in vain because 
    of technological and political obstacles.  All nations have had their 
    initial failures when exploring space, only to eventually succeed in 
    one capacity or another.  
 
         Our future descendants on Mars and throughout the Solar System 
    will thank us for our efforts.
 
         Bibliography:
 
         Gatland, Kenneth, ROBOT EXPLORERS, The MacMillan Company, New 
    York, 1972.  ISBN 0-7137-0573-6.
 
         Hart, Douglas, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOVIET SPACECRAFT, Exeter Books, 
    New York, 1987.  ISBN 0-671-08932-3.
 
         Johnson, Nicholas L., THE SOVIET YEAR IN SPACE 1988, Teledyne Brown 
    Engineering, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1989.
 
         Miles, Frank, and Nicholas Booth, RACE TO MARS: THE MARS FLIGHT 
    ATLAS, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1988.  ISBN 0-06-016005-5.
 
         Oberg, James E., UNCOVERING SOVIET DISASTERS: EXPLORING THE LIMITS 
    OF GLASNOST, Random House, Inc., New York, 1988.  ISBN 0-394-56095-7.
 
         Smith, Arthur, PLANETARY EXPLORATION: THIRTY YEARS OF UNMANNED 
    SPACE PROBES, Patrick Stephens Limited, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, 
    England, 1988.  ISBN 0-85059-915-6.
 
         Wilson, Andrew, SOLAR SYSTEM LOG, Jane's Publishing, Inc., New York,
    1987.  ISBN 0-7106-0444-0.
 
 
First published in THE ELECTRONIC JOURNAL OF THE ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
OF THE ATLANTIC, Volume 1, Number 3 - October 1989.
Copyright  1989, Larry Klaes

 

Last Update: 02/22/02

 

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