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Launch of Phobos-Grunt

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The author of this page will appreciate comments, corrections and imagery related to the subject. Please contact Anatoly Zak.


Author would like to thank Georgy Poleshyuk, director general of NPO Lavochkin and his team at ILA 2008 show and Dwayne Day for their help in preparing this section.


Above: Likely the earliest depiction of the Russian spacecraft designed to return samples of soil from Phobos published in 1992.

When it finally reaches the launch pad, Phobos-Grunt will mark a revival of the Russian planetary exploration program, which has been left penniless and demoralized ever since an ill-fated Mars-96 spacecraft plunged into the Earth atmosphere in 1996, just hours after its launch. Despite all previous setbacks, Russian scientists chose a bold (and critics said overly ambitious) plan to bring back a piece of Martian moon Phobos, as their nation's debut in deep space.

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Origin of the Phobos Grunt project

The idea of returning samples of soil from Phobos was first considered by Soviet scientists in the 1970s, in preparation for the original Phobos missions launched in 1988. (396) The concept later re-emerged at the end of the 1980s, as a follow-on mission to Mars-94 and Mars-96 projects. In September 1992, NASA scientists received an invitation from their Russian colleagues to join the Phobos sample return mission with a US-built scientific instruments for studies on the surface of Phobos and with a return rocket, which would carry soil samples back to Earth. At the time, the launch of the mission was planned at the end of 1998 or early in 1999 onboard the four-stage Proton rocket. (529) The spacecraft design would be based on the platform, which was previously flown in Phobos-1/2 mission and was also used in the development of Mars-94, Mars-96 and Aster missions.

The fiasco of Mars-96 marked the beginning of the darkest hour (or rather a decade) for the Russian planetary exploration program. The loss of that complex mission not simply wasted years of efforts and deprived the international scientific community of the wealth of data about mysteries of the Red Planet, but also imploded Russia's reputation as the leader in deep space missions and as a reliable international partner. Combined with the collapsing funding for the Russian space program throughout the 1990s and the mass exodus of specialists from the industry, it was a perfect storm that nearly wiped out the nation's space science potential. Under this kind of circumstances, in 1997, the planetary and small bodies division of the Russian Academy on Sciences Space Council outlined three areas of research: Moon, asteroids and comets and Mars. Each of these targets became a focus of a Scientific and Research Project, or NIR, envisioning following missions:

  • Luna-Glob, the mission carrying penetrators to the surface of the Earth's Moon for studies of its interior;
  • Phobos-Grunt, the delivery of soil samples from the Martian Moon Phobos;
  • Mars-Aster, the development of a Mars rover;

In May 1998, the Academy of Sciences was offered to chose one project, which could be included in the Federal Space Program during 2000-2005, thus giving it a chance for at least minimal funding and enabling a preliminary design. On June 2, 1998, at the meeting of the planetary division, Phobos-Grunt came out a winner. At the time, its launch was expected between December 2004 and June 2005. (288)

A key goal of the Phobos-Grunt project would be landing on the surface of the mysterious Martian moon Phobos and returning its soil samples back to Earth. As a bonus, the spacecraft would have many opportunities to study Mars from its orbit. Despite being within a grasp of current technology and delivering a potential windfall of scientific data, no other space agency pursued a similar mission scenario in the 1990s, since, at the time, the attention of the international science community focused mainly on the surface of Mars. In the meantime, Russian engineers had already tested their skills in navigating Phobos neighborhood during Phobos missions in 1988-1989. Before its untimely loss during the rendezvous with Phobos, engineers managed to gather navigation and ballistic data, which could be applicable to future missions. (289)

Original design version

During 1999, the Phobos-Grunt mission took its original shape (at least on paper). Unlike previous planetary missions launched by the mighty Proton, the Phobos-Grunt would ride into space on the smaller, cheaper Soyuz rocket. To compensate for the lower propulsion power of its booster, the Phobos-Grunt was to be equipped with SPD-140 electric engines, using xenon. They could provide relatively low but long-term thrust on an interplanetary journey.

It was expected that a basic spacecraft first developed for the Phobos-Grunt project could be later adapted for other deep-space missions. Developers hoped that a slightly modified platform could fly to the Moon, as well as to asteroids and comets whose orbits do not extend too far into the dark outer reaches of the solar system, where even largest solar panels could produce enough power for the ship's electric engines. It was estimated that the spacecraft's reach would extend from 0.3 to 3 astronomical units (one unit is equal to the distance from the Earth to the Sun).

The original flight profile adopted for the Phobos-Grunt project would involve the following milestones:

  • The rocket booster delivers the 7,250-kilogram spacecraft into the 180 by 200-kilometer orbit around the Earth with the inclination 51.8 degrees toward the Equator;
  • The main orbital tug, using a traditional chemical rocket engine, sends the spacecraft away from the Earth orbit in the direction of Mars;
  • The orbital tug separates, leaving a 2,370-kilogram spacecraft on its way to Mars;
  • The spacecraft deploys its large solar panels, with the total area of 54 square meters, which supply power to the craft's electric propulsion system;
  • The electric propulsion unit fires and remains on for as many as 362 days, during a 550-day journey from Earth to Mars, slowly but constantly accelerating the spacecraft on its way to Mars;
  • The electric engine stage is jettisoned on the approach to Mars;
  • A breaking maneuver inserts the spacecraft into the orbit around Mars;
  • The spacecraft orbits Mars from 120 to 150 days, while maneuvering to synchronize its orbit with that of Phobos and to rendezvous with the tiny moon;
  • The spacecraft lands or rather moors itself to the surface of Phobos near the moon's equatorial plane (within 0 to 30 degrees latitude) with the velocity 0.5 ± 0.2 meters per second;
  • The spacecraft takes soil samples from the depth of up to 1.5 meters, conducts science experiments on the surface and deploys a small station on the surface;
  • The return craft lifts off from the surface of Phobos on the ascent stage and heads to Earth. The descent stage is left on the surface;
  • The ascent stage and the return rocket separate;
  • The capsule, carrying soil samples reenters the Earth atmosphere and lands; (289)

With its basic design drafted and flight profile fully defined by 2002, Phobos-Grunt remained a "paper project," without any chance of taking off, as Russian space science struggled to survive in the first years of the 21st century. Even as an "approved" mission, Phobos-Grunt still had to compete with space telescope missions, which were lobbied by the leadership of the Academy of Sciences and which also involved international partners. In the end, all telescope missions and Phobos-Grunt stuck on the ground for years.

In 2002, Space Council of the Russian Academy of Science again singled out Phobos-Grunt as the only planetary mission eligible for scarce funding. At the time, the mission timeline looked as following:

  • 2007 July 1: Launch from Earth;
  • 2009 Jan. 1: Arrival to Mars;
  • 2009 July 6: Departure to Earth;
  • 2010 June 6: Return to Earth; (289)

By 2003, a prime developer NPO Lavochkin had completed a preliminary design of the mission, however the bureau's chief Georgy Poleshyuk admitted that the project went far beyond of what Russia could afford at the time.


Around 2003, it became clear that Phobos-Grunt would not fly either in 2005 or in 2007. Since the next available and seemingly achievable window of 2009 provided more favorable conditions for launch to Mars, it prompted planners to drop the idea of using exotic electric propulsion. Traditional chemical thrusters could now give the spacecraft required energy, if it was launched by the Soyuz rocket. Along with electric engines, gone were huge solar panels supplying power for energy-hungry propulsion system.

In the meantime, the Babakin center, a "spinoff" of NPO Lavochkin, a prime developer of Russia's planetary probes apparently advocated even "smaller, cheaper" concept of a mission to Mars, which included Mars orbiter without an attempt to return soil from Phobos.

In June 2003, Russian space agency was expected to consider which revision of the project to choose. Still, as late as February 2004, head of the Russian space agency Yuri Koptev was talking about Focus-Mars project, which would "only" involve the main craft and landers on the surface of Mars and Phobos. At the time, an official at Space Research Institute, IKI, which traditionally devised science missions for Russian planetary probes, was quoted as saying that the federal government allocated 40 million rubles to the project during 2004. A total price tag for the mission, including the Soyuz launch vehicle was estimated at more than one billion rubles.

In the meantime, Russian economic situation started slowly improving, giving Russian scientists another chance for deep-space exploration. On October 22, 2005, the Russian government signed a decree No. 635, approving Federal Space Program for 2006-2015. It included funding for the Phobos-Grunt project, then slated for launch in October 2009 onboard the Soyuz-2 rocket. During 2005, a number of Russian officials at the space agency and within the industry continued to maintain that the mission would be launched in 2009. The development documentation and blueprints for the spacecraft and its systems was to be ready during 2005. Also, funding levels and development schedule had to be finalized.

BKU decision

Also around that time, NPO Lavochkin made a controversial decision to develop its onboard flight control system, BKU, in-house. Perhaps as a combination of personal ambitions and a desire to maximize government funding, Lavochkin management rejected its traditional subcontractor -- OKB Mars -- as the primary developer of BKU. Instead, a relatively new and inexperienced team at Lavochkin was put in charge of the BKU integration and its software development.

Proponents of the new arrangement argued that they could put together a lighter and more robust flight control system than the one offered by OKB Mars. The brand-new BKU for Phobos-Grunt and follow-on planetary missions would be based on components developed by Moscow-based Tekhkom. The relatively new company was a spinoff of NPO Argon, a long-time developer of onboard computers for Russian manned spacecraft. Tekhkom did deliver its promised components with fairly good capabilities and progressive technologies, however Lavochkin's own team struggled to integrate BKU and to write software for it.

Critics charged that newly appointed leaders of the BKU development at NPO Lavochkin had rejected the participation in the project of all leading computer software and hardware specialists, who had acquired an extensive experience in the development of the sophisticated flight control computer for the Araks satellite. Not surprisingly, these opponents subjected the proposed flight control system architecture to a very harsh criticism during the formal defense of its preliminary design at NPO Lavochkin. Still, proponents of the new design were able to convince the company's management to dismiss the criticism and proceed with the development of the controversial flight control system.

The influence of the BKU development team reportedly went much further than their direct responsibilities for onboard computers. They also pushed experienced electric engineers out of the Phobos-Grunt project. The new team reportedly favored using soldering for the assembly of the onboard cable network, instead of traditional mechanical connectors -- a decision that would come to hunt developers in following years.

Events of 2006

On March 28, 2006, Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences issued a Directive No. 10310-175 appointing corresponding member of the Academy Lev Zeleny as a scientific chief of the Phobos-Grunt project. Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Aleksandr Zakharov was appointed deputy scientific chief and science coordinator of the project. B. S. Novikov was appointed chief designer of the scientific payload complex. During 2006, 40 million rubles was allocated for the development of the scientific payload onboard Phobos-Grunt.

In June 2006, NPO Lavochkin announced that it started manufacturing and testing the development version of the spacecraft hardware and onboard avionics. The development mockup of the vehicle was also under assembly, according to NPO Lavochkin.

During 2006, IKI reported completing following work:

  • The list of scientific payloads was adjusted and finalized; working materials on science payloads with a description of scientific and technical specifications of instruments from the science payload complex, KNA, was issued;
  • Technical assignment for science payload complex was adjusted, technical requirements for science instruments was issued
  • Development documentation for the manufacturing all thermal equivalents (TE) and size-weight mockups (NMM) and some elements of test versions of science instruments from the science payload complex was issued
  • Thermal and size/mass equivalents of all science instruments were manufactured and delivered to NPO Lavochkin, prime developer;
  • Work sequence for science instruments during the thermal and vacuum testing, as well as during the actual flight had been developed and issued
  • Conditions for observation of Phobos, Mars and surrounding space had been analyzed and proposals developed for studies of these bodies in near-infrared and optical range of spectrum via TV system. Resulting requirements for the TV system were formulated;
  • A more accurate digital model of Phobos with the resolution of 200 meters had been developed and the software for modeling images produced by imaging system in the orbit of Mars had been written.

Events of 2007

On April 5, 2007, Chief Designer Council of the Phobos-Grunt held a meeting chaired by the head of NPO Lavochkin Georgy Poleshyuk. It was attended by representatives of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, Space Research Institute, IKI RAN and various sub-contractors involved in the project. Igor Goroshkov, the chief designer of the project, along with a number of other developers reported on the state of the spacecraft. At the time, another key meeting, considering the status of the ground control segment of the Phobos-Grunt project was planned for May 2007. It did take place on Aug. 15, 2007. The deep-space network supporting Phobos-Grunt project was expected to involve ground control stations in Medvezhiy Ozera (Bear Lake), Ussuriysk, Lavochkin mission control center, the Ballistic Center of Applied Mechanics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, IPM RAN, and Ground Complex of the Space Research Institute, NK IKI.

Also, ground control stations in Evpatoria, Ukraine as well as facilities in Austria and Spain were expected to be involved. Lavochkin representatives discussed options of using foreign control stations with European representatives during ILA 2008 show in Berlin.

Also, during 2007, reports surfaced about the possibility of using Phobos-Grunt, as a data-relay satellite for the European ExoMars rover, which was expected to land on the surface of Mars.

Personell changes

Only after the launch and loss of Phobos-Grunt a report surfaced that the head of NPO Lavochkin Georgy Poleshyuk initiated major personnel changes at NPO Lavochkin, which some believed would have fateful consequences for the Phobos-Grunt mission. Based on principles of military service, critics charged, Poleshyuk pushed aside many very experienced engineers whose age exceeded 45, replacing them with a new crop of specialists aged just between 30 and 40-years old. The head of the Phobos-Grunt project Igor Goroshkov left his job in protest against his demotion. An experienced programming specialist Yuri Zaiko was appointed to take Goroshkov's place, however, critics later said that despite being a good engineer, Zaiko had lacked the experience of a project chief designer. In one of his management missteps, Zaiko reportedly rejected the services of a logic department, which was previously responsible for the development of the algorithms for the mission's flight program and could provide an overall control over the readiness of the spacecraft for launch. Ironically, Zaiko himself previously led this department.

To make matters worse, Georgy Poleshyuk initiated a major reorganization of NPO Lavochkin's decade-long structure, which led to what critics called "anarchy" within the Phobos-Grunt project. Old relations between departments were reportedly broken and engineers lost track of their responsibilities, as the same tasks would now be assigned to two different groups. (544)

Chinese sub-probe on Phobos-Grunt

In June 2005, the head of the Russian space agency Anatoly Perminov said that China would join the Phobos-Grunt mission. In November 2006, Russian officials confirmed earlier reports, saying that the Chinese sub-satellite would be released from Phobos-Grunt in the Martian orbit.

On June 27, 2007, Roskosmos announced that the third meeting of the Russian-Chinese group on lunar and deep space exploration took place at the agency's headquarters in Moscow. It considered joint work on Phobos-Grunt, Worldwide Space Observatory/Ultrafiolet and Spektr-R/Radioastron. Two sides signed a contract based on the agreement on the exploration of Phobos and Mars reached on March 26, 2007. The agreement was signed by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin during Mr. Hu’s recent visit to Russia.

Chinese specialists were also expected to visit NPO Lavochkin design bureau, which served as a key developer of the Phobos-Grunt project.

Depictions of the Phobos-Grunt released at the time showed Chinese sub-probe, identified as Yinghuo-1 (YH-1), mounted on top of the spacecraft assembly. According to the official Chinese media, the sub-probe had a shape of a 750 x 750 x 600-millimeter box with the mass of 110 kilograms and equipped with a pair of three-section solar panels, which would span 7.85 meters, when deployed.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University also announced that as a result of the March 26, 2007, agreement, the institution was charged with the responsibility to develop a 230-gramm "Soil Preparation System," capable of grinding and sifting Phobos rock to the size of less than one millimeter in diameter for the in-situ analysis by the Phobos-Grunt lander. The grinding tool would be placed at the end of the remotely controlled manipulator, also carrying a miniature spectrometer and a camera. The system was expected to be used for selecting soil samples, which would be eventually loaded onboard the reentry capsule, for a ride back to Earth.

The decision to add the Chinese spacecraft to the Phobos-Grunt mission, dictated primarily by political rather than economic reasons, proved to be very controversial. Even thought the contract apparently required China to pay a modest amount for the integration of its satellite, the move led to a major redesign of the Russian spacecraft, putting additional pressure on the already tight launch schedule.

The propulsion unit onboard the cruise stage of the Phobos-Grunt probe would no longer be capable of inserting itself and the Chinese satellite into the Martian orbit. Instead, it was now required to give the Fregat upper stage not only its usual role of sending its payload away from Earth, but also a job of slowing down and inserting the vehicle into its orbit around Mars. As a result, Fregat would have to be heavily modified to survive an interplanetary journey.

The task of attitude-control and orientation of such overgrown vehicle was transferred to the cruise stage, while the course correction functions during a cruise flight between Earth and Mars were "moved down" to the Fregat-based propulsion unit, which was renamed MDU.

According to the initial concept, the Chinese satellite would be placed above the main payload, however such configuration would require a major redesign of the spacecraft's structure. After some debate, it was decided to move the Chinese spacecraft below the cruise stage. As a result, the propulsion system of the cruise stage would now be blocked until the separation of its late passenger.

The addition of the Chinese satellite also increased power consumption onboard the spacecraft and required to develop a data-exchange system between the new payload and the main flight control computer. Finally, the integrated test stand for the Phobos-Grunt mission had never received an equivalent of the Chinese vehicle, thus preventing a proper testing of interaction between two spacecraft.

In the hindsight, critics said that the addition of the Chinese satellite had required the postponement of the mission from 2009 to 2011. If the decision to delay the launch was made right away in 2007, NPO Lavochkin would have enough time to develop the spacecraft from scratch, beginning with the preliminary design. (544)

Switch to the Zenit rocket

The inclusion of the Chinese satellite also maxed out the capabilities of the Soyuz-2-1B rocket, prompting mission planners to switch to the Zenit rocket. However as an added bonus, the Zenit provided enough redundant lifting capability to launch the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft with its full complement of international payloads in the launch window of 2011, which would be less favorable then the primary departure time in 2009. If Phobos-Grunt remained on the Soyuz, it could not be launched with the Chinese micro-satellite in 2011.

Finnish lander

To further complicate the mission, NPO Lavochkin reached an agreement with Finnish scientists to deliver a lander on the surface of Mars. The landing vehicle would use an inflatable device to break in the Martian atmosphere and conduct a soft-landing on the surface of the Red Planet.


The Phobos-Grunt mission calendar based on a 2011 launch date:

- ~as of June 2010 ~as of October 2010
Launch 2011 Dec. 25 2011 November (432) 8(?)
Mars orbit insertion 2012 end of August - September 2012 Oct. 12
An initial Mars orbit 2012 December -
A circular Mars orbit 2013 February -
Landing on Phobos 2013 March 2013 February
Liftoff from Phobos 2013 April (?) 2013 February-March (432)
Return to Earth 2014 middle of August 2014 August (432)


Evolution of the Phobos-Grunt mission plan during 1996-2007:

as of 1996*
as of 1997
as of 1999
as of 2002
as of 2007
Launch site
Launch vehicle
Launch date
2004 Dec. - 2005 June
2007 July 1
2009 October
Arrival to the Martian orbit
2009 Jan. 1


Departure date of the return craft from Phobos
2009 July 6
2011 end of July - August
Return to Earth date
2008 May-June
2010 June 6
2012 June 15 - July 20

*Preliminary plans, as proposed by the scientific community



Above: The architecture of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft as of 2008. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

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Next chapter: Events of 2008-2009

Page author: Anatoly Zak; last update: January 30, 2012

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Early depictions of the Phobos-Grunt mission equipped with electric engines, as it was envisioned around 1998. Credit: NPO Lavochkin



Evolution of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, sporting electric propulsion, circa 2003. Note changes in the size of the tanks and solar panels between two versions of the probe. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


A depiction of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft circa 2005. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


The soil capsule eventually "moved" to the top position on the return stage. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


An artist depiction of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft under a payload fairing of the Soyuz rocket circa 2005. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


A scale model of Russia's flagship planetary mission, Phobos-Grunt was demonstrated at the ILA 2008 air and space show in Berlin. If launched as promised in 2009, it would the only Russian launch beyond Earth orbit in the first decade of the 21st century. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


A scale model of the Chinese YH-1 spacecraft, whose addition to the project triggered a major redesign of the spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


Initially engineers considered integrating a Chinese spacecraft to the Phobos-Grunt mission by placing it above the main vehicle, however it would require to increase the structural strength of the vehicle. Credit: NPO Lavochkin


After a top placement of the Chinese satellite was rejected, engineers considered accommodating it below the main vehicle inside a single-section truss. Credit: NPO Lavochkin

Below: The final architecture of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft unveiled at ILA 2008 air and space show in Berlin.


A configuration of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft in the low-Earth orbit. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2008 RussianSpaceWeb.com via NPO Lavochkin


A 2009 scale model of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, as seen from the side of the main communications antenna. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


A scale model presented at the Moscow Air and Space Show in August 2009 finally accurately depicted the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, just a couple of months before its promised launch. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


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