TsNIIMash projects

Earliest Soviet studies of possible missions beyond the Mars orbit were initiated at the end of the 1960s in the 12th Department of TsNIIMash, the leading research institution of the Soviet rocket industry.

This work coincided with (and possibly it was influenced by) NASA projects, which eventually led to Pioneer-10-11 and Voyager 1-2 missions. At TsNIIMash, the 12th Department, also known as Department of Spacecraft, was responsible for conceptualizing the ideas, which could be adopted for development by the industry, providing government funding. Dr. Lev Golovin led the department at the time.

During the second half of the 1960 and beginning of the 1970s, Golovin's group put forward a number of ambitious proposals for unmanned missions to planets, including Mercury and Jupiter, along with the project of a manned expedition to Mars, a lunar base and a big orbital station in the Earth orbit. In the course of this work, a number of scaled models of the hardware was built to represent the concepts developed at TsNIIMash. Despite a common misconception that these models had been used for testing, veterans of TsNIIMash insisted that they were no more than promotional materials prepared for the meetings of high-ranking officials at the Ministry of General Machine Building, which from 1966 oversaw the Soviet rocket industry.

Energia based projects

During the development of the Energia rocket, Soviet engineers made mulled using this super-heavy vehicle to launch unmanned planetary missions. The preliminary studies (NIRs) code-named Vselennaya ("Universe") started in 1982 and Rasplav ("Melter") conducted in 1983 conceptualized electrically propelled, nuclear-powered space probes which would head to outer planets and land on their moons. They would deliver rovers and even return soil samples from mysterious natural satellites of giant planets. However these studies did not go beyond very preliminary evaluations.

Proton-based projects

During 1986 and 1987, Vladimir Perminov, a leading developer of interplanetary probes at the Lavochkin design bureau prepared a Scientific and Technical Report, NTO, on the possibility of unmanned missions to Jupiter, Saturn and Sun. The report considered possible designs of the spacecraft, its trajectories and other engineering issues of the project.

Based on this work, Lavochkin launched a preliminary study (NIR) code-named Tsiolkovsky with a primary goal of sending an unmanned probe toward the Sun. The spacecraft would be powered by Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTG), which use radioactive plutonium to produce electrical power onboard. A large four-meter antenna would be used to transmit data from the spacecraft to the ground control stations.

A major requirement for the project was the probe's ability to fly within five or seven of the Sun's radiuses. In order to survive the tremendous heat reaching this distance from the Sun, engineers proposed two alternative shapes for the spacecraft body -- one as a narrow cone and another as a disc. In both cases, narrow edges of the craft would face the Sun, thus reducing the effect of the heat. With all protective measures in place, the temperature of the probe surfaces was still expected to reach 2,500 degrees C. A special thermal protection made of vanadium was designed to shield the probe's internal systems.

According to the plan, in 1995-96, the Proton rocket with a Shtorm hydrogen-fuled upper stage would send a two-ton spacecraft toward Jupiter, where the planet's powerful gravity field would "sling shot" the probe back toward the Sun in the so-called gravity-assisted maneuver. As it was passing Jupiter, cameras onboard the spacecraft were expected to conduct observations of the giant planet and its moons, while a descent capsule with science instruments would be dropped into Jupiter's atmosphere.

The capsule, with the maximum weight of 500 kilograms, was expected to experience the acceleration of 1,500 g during its descent into the atmosphere of Jupiter. Following the Jupiter flyby, the craft would continue on toward the Sun. A derivative of the spacecraft could be also sent toward Saturn and beyond.

To simulate the loads expected during the descent in the Jovian atmosphere, NPO Lavochkin design bureau had constructed a special centrifuge on its premises in Moscow. However, the spacecraft itself had never gone beyond a development stage, as federal funds for space program started evaporating at the turn of the 1990s.

Post-Soviet plans for deep-space spacecraft

After a long hiatus caused by economic problems of the post-Soviet period, NPO Lavochkin's engineers could at least dream again about deep-space missions. In August 2007, management of the company revealed plans for a number of missions beyond Earth orbit, including the Asteroid-Grunt and Kometa-Grunt projects, which could collect soil samples from an asteroid and a comet respectively. Both probes would be based on the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, then scheduled for launch in 2009.

Beyond already approved Federal Space Program until 2020, NPO Lavochkin drafted plans for yet-to-be funded missions in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Preliminary plans for a lander or a penetrator mission to Jupiter's moon Europa were under discussion between European and Russian officials. It could take off as early as 2017. Recent NPO Lavochkin publications also described several possible concepts of planetary missions, including:

  • Asteroid-Grunt: The mission to return soil samples from an asteroid;
  • Kometa-Grunt: a mission to return soil samples from a comet;
  • Yupiter-Ganymede: a mission focusing on Jupiter's moon Ganymede;
  • Gipersat: a mission focusing on Saturn's moons Hyperion and Iapetus;
  • Obertur: a mission to Uranus and its moons Oberon and Titania;
  • Netrit: a mission to Neptune and its moon Triton;

The actual implementation of these missions would depend on the success of the initial Russian attempts to jump-start its planetary exploration program, level of funding of the Russian space program and the ability of Russian scientists to forge cooperative agreements with their colleagues abroad.

Russia to send spacecraft into vicinity of the Sun

In 2012, Russian space agency gave go head to a full-scale development of an ambitious spacecraft dedicated to studies of the Sun from a close distance. The first Russian or Soviet mission into the vicinity of the Sun faces many unprecedented technical challenges including the development of innovative electric engines and protecting the spacecraft from the searing 600-degree heat and radiation of our home star. Dubbed Intergelio-Zond or IGZ, the daring space probe would follow in footsteps of the the US-German Helios mission and NASA's Ulysses spacecraft. It is also expected to coincide with the US Solar Probe and the European Solar Orbiter projects.

Return to Mercury

As NASA resumed its exploration of Mercury with the Messenger mission in 2008, Moscow-based Space Research Institute, IKI, also revisited this exotic destination in the Solar System. According to IKI, a three-phase study, NIR, of the Mercury-Landing Module, MPM, had been evaluated "scientific and technical proposals for the science goals and equipment for the exploration of the planet's surface."

Renewed Russian-European cooperation might propel it all the way to Jupiter

A steady increase of the Russian space budget in the first decade of the 21st century revived hopes among the nation's planetary scientists for sending a mission to Jupiter. Even the Soviet Union never managed to implement its early plans for exploring destinations beyond the orbit of Mars, leaving it to US spacecraft first to reach vicinity of giant planets in the outer Solar System. Yet, data and images sent back by NASA's Pioneer and Voyager probes only expanded the horizons for exploration. Particularly, moons of Jupiter, which have fascinated astronomers since Galileo, revealed unique and diverse worlds with a potential to harbor life.

In 2012, Russia promised to provide three Proton rockets to launch Europe's cash-strapped ExoMars 2016, ExoMars-2018 missions and the JUICE spacecraft, essentially bailing out beleaguered projects. The move obviously gave Russian scientists a real chance to see their instruments and experiments reaching Mars in 2016 and 2018 and, in the following decade, flying beyond it, all the way to the moons of Jupiter.

Next chapter: Russian plans for missions to comets and asteroids

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: February 5, 2013

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The artist rendering of the Soviet spacecraft for the exploration of Jupiter. Note two radioisotope generators on both sides of the spacecraft. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Concept of the spacecraft for the missions to Venus and Mercury. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak

Concept of the Mars probe. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak