Russia to Delay Gigantic Phobos Spacecraft; Tiny Moon Breaths Big Sigh of Relief

Anatoly Zak reports that Russia will delay launch of its 11-ton Phobos-Grunt mission to 2011 because of problems in developing the massive craft.

The 11-ton Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, designed to land on the surface of the Martian moon Phobos and return samples of its soil back to Earth, was scheduled to lift off October 2009. A number of science institutions around the world have contributed instruments and experiments for the ambitious project. However, according to Francis Rocard, a scientist at CNES, the French space agency, which supplied some of the scientific payloads for the project, Russian space officials are about to announce a postponement of Phobos-Grunt’s launch to 2011.

“What we know is that they are waiting for the 2009 budget [to be finalized], and then they will announce a delay,” says Rocard. Since the orbital mechanics only allow launches to Mars once every 25 to 26 months, the next opportunity for the Phobos-Grunt mission to leave Earth would not come until the end of 2011 or beginning of 2012.

Read Zak’s full story in the IEEE Spectrum.

The delay is probably a good idea. With something this large and complex, you don’t want to hurry the launch. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready.

I’ve always been a bit dubious about this mission. It’s extremely ambitious. It would be difficult for even NASA – which has the world’s best Mars exploration program – to pull off successfully.

The Russian and Soviet space programs have an almost total record of failure at the Red Planet. Nothing they have ever sent there has worked completely; most missions were total failures. Their last spacecraft to actually get to Mars was Phobos 2 in 1988; it failed after taking only 38 images. It’s twin, Phobos 1, was lost en route.

I don’t understand this gigantism design philosophy. Why not just get a rather small spacecraft in orbit around the planet with instruments that supplement the ones that are already there? Use that to build up flight experience and confidence. Why build some monstrous thing, load it up with every instrument imaginable, and try something as complicated as sample return?

It’s a high risk strategy. If it fails, you’ve wasted a great deal of time and money on something that’s taken an extra two years to launch.

Of course, if the mission works, you’re heroes. A great success, you’ve leapfrogged NASA and ESA, brought back soil from a Martian moon for the first time. You’ll probably get medals for it.

But, then there’s the encore. You will likely be under pressure to try something equally bold – or bolder. The prospects of overreaching become higher. And without the experience provided by repeated missions, you could easily fall into traps that you don’t anticipate and just can’t recover from. It doesn’t seem like a good way to build a long-term exploration effort.