A sample/return mission to collect soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos has been launched from Russia, reports the BBC. The Russian satellite, named Phobos-Grunt, launched earlier today with the Chinese satellite Yinghuo-1 onboard as well. Both are bound for the Martian moon Phobos and are scheduled to arrive in September of 2012.
But the probe is stuck in low Earth orbit. Two rocket burns were supposed to propel the massive probe on a course toward Mars late Tuesday, but indications are the engine firings did not occur, according to Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian space agency.
This package of hardy micro-organisms will make the journeys out and back inside a separate compartment in the return capsule.
Upon arriving near Mars and Phobos, Yinghuo-1 will be dispatched into orbit around Mars, while Phobos-Grunt will begin maneuvering for its final descent onto the moon’s surface. Phobos-Grunt was expected to descend to the surface of the moon in February 2013. Because of the weak gravity field at Phobos, the probe must make a gentle landing with little margin for error.
After scooping up rock with a robot arm and placing the samples in a canister, Phobos-Grunt’s return capsule was designed to depart the moon and target a landing back on Earth in August 2014 with nearly a half-pound of soil. It’s scheduled to touch down in Kazakhstan by August of 2014.
No spacecraft has returned samples from the surface of another planet (yet), though meteorites from Mars have been found on Earth, and asteroid samples have been returned.
Planetary protection is the term given to the practice of protecting solar system bodies (i.e., planets, moons, comets, and asteroids) from contamination by Earth life, and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies.
Dr. Cassie Conley is NASA’s acting Planetary Protection Officer, responsible for ensuring that NASA missions to other worlds do not contaminate those worlds with terrestrial microbes.
Astrobiology Magazine features The Martian Cronciles, a multipart series with Steve Squyres, showing the inside story of the Mars missions. Portland State University’s Sherry Cady (left), an Astrobiologist in Portland, edits the more academic Astrobiology Journal. Exobiology is live on the net.
In 2011 NASA planned to bring Martian soil back to Earth. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) wants to stop it. More research is needed to determine whether potentially dangerous life forms exist on Mars before a manned mission to the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor can go ahead, a NASA advisory panel warned.
ICAMSR warns that “from the years 1347 – 1350, one quarter of the European population died as a result of a flea from China carrying an unfamiliar microbe.
After living in the dirt of Mars, a pathogen could see our bodies as a comparable host,” says John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer for Earth. John Barros thinks extraterrestials should go to the University of Washington for Astrobiology study.
It’s not immediately clear who resolves jurisdictional disputes between Planetary and Solar System Protection Officers or who calls the shots for extraterrestrial contact.
The White House announced yesterday that ET’s are NOT being held at Area 51:
“The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.”
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