Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I wanted to post about this, my new favorite space project. But at the same time, I have a short angry rant.
The Russians (!) are planning to launch a very impressive, very daring and risky space project to land a craft on the larger (but still very small) moon of Mars; Phobos. Phobos is about 20 km on a side (but hardly regular in shape) and orbits Mars at around 10,000 km.
From the wiki page:
"Immediately after the touchdown, the lander will load a soil sample into a return rocket. In case of a breakdown of communications with mission control, it can enter an emergency mode to collect samples and still send them home in the return rocket. Normal collection could last from two days to a week. The robotic arm can collect rocks up to about half an inch in diameter. It ends in a pipe-shaped tool that splits to form a claw. This encloses a piston that will push the soil sample into an artillery-shell-shaped container. A light-sensitive photo-diode in the claw will help scientists confirm that the device did scoop material. They hope also to see images of trenches the claw leaves on the surface. The manipulator should perform 15 to 20 scoops yielding a total of three to five and a half ounces of soil.
The return rocket will sit atop the spacecraft, and will need to rise at 22 mph to escape Phobos' gravity. To protect experiments remaining on the lander, springs will vault the rocket to a safe height, at which its engines will fire and begin maneuvers for the eventual trip to Earth.
The lander's experiments will continue in-situ on Phobos' surface for a year. To conserve power, mission control will turn these on and off in a precise sequence. The robotic arm will place more samples in a chamber that will heat it and analyze its spectrum. This analysis might determine the presence of easily vaporized substances, such as water.
The landing site that has been chosen is a region from 5°S to 5°N, 230° to 235°W."
This is a very risky project, and a historical first. The odds of success are, and I will be depressing, quite low. 50/50 would not be out of the question. But consider the cost - only $65 million! I am saddened that nasa spent about $500 million (including launch and operation mind you) on the Phoenix, and it just lasted one season. In a perfect world all projects would get funded, but I would hate to push back our Europa explorer even one year to pay for Phoenix. I am very proud of the Russians, the Chinese, the ESA, and India as they take a larger part in space exploration. As the government consistently under-funds NASA, we need to diversify and rely on others who continue to dream about space exploration, even if they live in other countries.
And this brings me to the rant: on the Phobos Grunt spacecraft there is a small capsule containing living organisms to test how they last in space: they will be returned with the Phobos sample capsule. This project is from the Planetary Society, a great private organization that helps further the cause of space exploration. You may remember that they recently launched a solar sail into space aboard an old ICBM. This was a very nice project. But here we have a very stupid, irresponsible, unnecessary, and scientifically pointless project. First of all the dangers: we are sending spores and other living samples on a course that could cause them to crash on mars, Phobos, or earth contaminating the Phobos samples (bad) or Mars (worse). Risking contamination at a time when the search for life on other planets or moons is the biggest problem. But also, this is a stupid project because the capsule hardly tests panspermia in a scientific way. The organisms will only space soak for a few years at most. That is not the thousands or millions of years likely in a panspermia mechanism. Also, they are protected and sealed in a metal case! Not embedded in a porous rock material. Anyway, the worst part is that sending the sample to Phobos is a waste of energy: every condition and form of adversity that is found at Mars orbit can be recreated here in Earth orbit or ON EARTH IN A LAB for less money and no risk. The radiation, the vacuum, the cold... we can make them all.
But dont let my anger about this distraction of an experiment ruin Phobos-Grunt for you, it wont for me. The Russians are taking a big bite here, and I hope they can get the project done and working on time. I cant stress how much the Russians have done for planetary exploration on a very limited budged in the past 50 years. Here are some links for more information:
ESA on PG
PDF on the project
Russian Planetary Exploration