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In the aftermath of Phobos-Grunt

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Above: Possible configuration of the joint European ExoMars and Russian Mars-NET spacecraft launched by a single Proton rocket.

Russia's Mars-NET mission was scheduled to follow Phobos-Grunt spacecraft to the orbit of Mars, however it would target the Martian surface itself, rather than the planet's tiny moon. In 2012, Mars-NET came to the center of attention of the world space community as a possible basis for Russian-European joint mission to the Red Planet.

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Previous chapter: Phobos-Grunt-2 mission

The Mars-NET project was conceived to study internal structure and the weather on Mars in unprecedented detail. It could also aim to detect traces of methane in the Martian environment, a crucial element in the understanding of the history of the Red Planet and the mystery of possible life on its surface.

According to the mission scenario, the Mars-NET's "mother ship" would approach the Red Planet and drop a cluster of small landers, which would spread all over the planet for a simultaneous global studies on the surface.

The hardware for the Mars-NET project was expected rely heavily on technology developed for previous Russian missions: namely, the main cruise vehicle would be largely borrowed from the Phobos-Grunt project, while multiple landers would use inflatable landing systems first developed for the Mars-96 mission. The actual responsibility for the development of landing vehicles was delegated to the Finnish Meteorological Institute, FMI, which could be contracted by the Russian government within a scheme to cover the Soviet debt to Finland.

The development of the project started in August 2000 with the evaluation of five different methods to deliver science gear to the surface of Mars reliably and cheaply. During 2002 and 2003, the first prototype of the landing system appeared in metal and its key components then went to wind tunnel for aerodynamic testing.

By 2004, the Babakin center, a development division at NPO Lavochkin, formulated Mars-NET mission, which would carry 20 landers to the surface of Mars, all equipped with inflatable heat shield for penetrating the atmosphere of Mars. NPO Lavochkin demonstrated a full-scale prototype of the device, which became known as MetNet, at Paris Air and Space Show in Le Bourget in June 2005.

Flight testing of inflatable landing systems

The inflatable reentry system, which became known as IRDT, was tested in three different configurations during two launches in 2000 and 2001. Only in one previous case, an experimental payload, called Demonstrator, was successfully returned to Earth from the Earth orbit. In 2000, a Fregat upper stage was believed to have successfully reentered the atmosphere using the IRDT, however, the search for the stage in the landing area yielded no results. Attempts to return a solar-sailing spacecraft in 2001 also failed.

On July 12, 2002, Russia launched an inflatable device from a Russian Navy submarine, however the Volna ballistic missile failed during the mission.

On October 7, 2005, at 01:30 Moscow Time, the Volna rocket carrying the Demonstrator D-2R inflatable breaking device, NTU, flew what appeared to be a normal flight from the Barents Sea toward the Kura impact range in the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, initial efforts to locate the landing craft at the impact site were unsuccessful. The analysis of the telemetry from the launch showed that the inflatable device separated from the rocket and was spin-stabilized. Its navigation, video-monitoring and autonomous radio-telemetry systems were activated. The telemetry transmission from the spacecraft was received at the Kura impact range and the reentry device was released and inflated some 356 seconds after the launch and the altitude of 238 kilometers.

The spacecraft entered the discernible atmosphere at the altitude of 100 kilometers and soon after its transmission was interrupted by the layer of plasma, as expected during the reentry. With the dissipation of plasma, the radio contact was restored and continued for 25 seconds. No further data came from the craft and no debris was found at the expected landing site. Some preliminary information indicated that the spacecraft might have overflown Kamchatka and fell into the Pacific Ocean.

One MetNet station was scheduled for delivery to Mars onboard the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, however the plan was dropped around 2008.

Mars-NET original mission scenario

As of 2008, the launch of the 8,120-kilogram Mars-NET spacecraft/Fregat upper stage combo was scheduled for 2016 on the Soyuz-2.1b rocket taking off from Baikonur. The Fregat upper stage would be used to send the mission from the initial parking orbit, after which it would separate, leaving the 2.5-ton spacecraft on its way to Mars.

The spacecraft would use its own engine to enter an initial Martian orbit with a perigee (lowest point) of 500 kilometers above the surface, which would take three days and eight hours to complete. Upon reaching the apogee (highest point) the first pair of landers would be released ensuring their touchdown around 45 degrees latitude on Mars. Two more pairs would be dropped around the same latitude, but on opposite side of the planet. Upon descending back to the perigee of the orbit, the main vehicle would fire its engine again, not entering a circular 500-kilometer orbit. Two more pairs of lander would now be released heading to polar areas of Mars at 75 and 85 degrees latitude. The orbiter could then use around 50 kilograms of its own science instrument for remote-sensing of the Martian environment, while also serving as a communications relay station for landers.

By the end of 2010, the Mars-NET project evolved to include eight landers, only four of which would be built in cooperation with the Finnish Meteorological Institute, while four others would represent Russian designs revived from the Mars-96 project.

Cooperation on ExoMars

In parallel, Russian scientists started talking to Europeans about possible coordination between Mars-NET and European ExoMars project, which was scheduled to fly to Mars in two phases in 2016 and 2018. A possible joint mission, which would utilize hardware from both missions and launch on a single Proton rocket was also conceived. This option became a Plan B for the European Space Agency by the beginning of 2011, when NASA bailed out from its previous commitment to provide the launch vehicle for the ExoMars mission. For Russia, it was an opportunity to fly at least some of the hardware conceived for Mars-NET, following the fiasco with Phobos-Grunt in November 2011. At the time, Mars-NET was not expected to fly until after 2021. In August 2012, a presentation by NPO Lavochkin no longer listed Mars-NET among the company's prospective missions.

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The Mars-NET mission as a glance (as of 2009):

Launch site Baikonur
Launch date 2016, then after 2021, then deferred;
Launch vehicle Soyuz-2.1b
Launch mass of the spacecraft 8,120 kilograms
Spacecraft mass during the cruise to Mars 2,500 kilograms
Spacecraft mass in the orbit of Mars 2,380 kilograms
Payload mass on the orbiter 50 kilograms
A single lander mass (including integration and separation system) 25 kilograms (landing mass: 15 kilograms)
Number of landers 10-12
Landing latitude range on Mars from 85 South to 85 North


Mars-NET mission timeline

2000 August: A development of the Mars-NET project starts in Russia.

2011: The funding crisis in the ExoMars project drives ESA to a cooperation with Russia.


Next chapter: ExoMars mission


Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 10, 2013

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Initial plans called for launching as many as 20 landers on a single Mars-NET spacecraft.

Mars NET

An artist rendering illustrating the Mars-NET spacecraft releasing one of its multiple landers onto the surface of the Red Planet. Credit: IKI


One configuration of the Mars-NET spacecraft during a cruise phase of the flight between Earth and Mars.


By 2009, 10 landers were to be carried to Mars by the Mars-NET mission.


A lander with an inflatable heat-shield for the Mars-NET mission appeared in Le Bourget in 2005. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak

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