An unmanned Zenit rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday with a Russian spacecraft to return samples from the Martian moon Phobos and a small Chinese probe designed to spend a year studying Mars.
The launch was Russia’s first attempt to return to interplanetary exploration since the 1996 loss of a Mars orbiter and lander. That mission, which ended shortly after launch due to an upper-stage rocket glitch, capped a long string of failed attempts by first Soviet and then Russian space agencies to reach the Red Planet.
None of Russia’s 18 previous Mars missions have been fully successful. NASA has had better luck, with five of six Mars landers making it to the surface.
Despite the 15-year hiatus in planetary exploration, the new Russian mission is far from modest. After an 11-month journey, the spacecraft is expected to put itself first into orbit around Mars, release a Chinese satellite for a year-long independent study, sync up with Phobos and then dispatch a lander to the surface of the small moon.
In addition, Russia wants to scoop up soil samples and fly them back to Earth, crash landing in August 2014 with no parachutes to slow the descent through the atmosphere.
“Each of these stages is risky and critical for the next one,” lead scientist Alexander Zakharov, with the Space Research Institute in Moscow, wrote in an email to Discovery News.
“If I was realistic, I’d be very happy if they had a successful landing,” added planetary scientist Pascal Lee, with NASA’s Ames Research Center and the Mars Society.
Scientists are eager to learn more about Phobos, which may be a captured asteroid or a body that formed from bits of its parent planet.
Russia had planned to launch the mission called Phobos-Grunt (“grunt” is Russian for “soil”) in 2009, but delayed the flight because the spacecraft wasn’t ready.
The Zenit rocket blasted off on time at 3:16 p.m. EST, a webcast of the launch broadcast by SpaceFlightNow.com showed.
Image: Try, try again. Zenit rocket lifts off with Russia’s first interplanetary spacecraft in 15 years. Credit: SpaceflightNow.com for Discovery News.