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Past Missions

For nearly 50 years, our civilization has been attempting to send spacecraft to Mars. By the beginning of the 21st century, only 10 missions out of 33 tries had been a complete success. Journey with us down the rocky road of Mars exploration.

Phobos 1: July 7, 1988
Phobos 2: July 12, 1988

In the years prior to the launch of Phobos 1 and 2, the Soviet Union had initiated an ambitious Mars program with a goal of sending a manned mission to the Red Planet by the early 21st century. Space station Mir had been launched in 1986 with an eye toward training cosmonauts for long-duration flight. Meanwhile, the Soviet plan for Mars included rovers, a complex Mars sample return project, and an examination of the Martian moon Phobos. The idea was that the satellite could act as a base for the human exploration of Mars. However, the Soviet economy and a changing political climate would weigh heavy on the USSR's space program. The Mars sample return project was discontinued, the rovers never happened, but the plan to study Phobos survived.

The Phobos spacecraft had a new design and the project reflected the Soviet Union's new mood of "glasnost" (openness) by involving other nations. Sweden, France and Germany were a few of the countries on the international team. The United States allowed the Soviets to use NASA's Deep Space Network to communicate with the probes.

Each Phobos spacecraft carried 25 science instruments to study the Sun, the atmosphere and surface of Mars, and to investigate Phobos. The science package even included a laser to vaporize material from the surface of the satellite for analysis. Phobos 1 and 2 also carried a small lander intended for the Martian moon's surface that contained a camera and instruments to search for signs of seismic activity, as well as study soil composition. Phobos 2 had a second lander that was designed to "hop" across the surface to gather data from several locations.

Phobos 1 never encountered Mars. One incorrect digit in a command sequence cut short the life of the spacecraft. It lost the ability to point its solar arrays toward the sun. Without solar power, the batteries were soon drained and Mars orbit insertion was impossible. The spacecraft was lost.

Phobos 2 went into orbit around Mars and was able to study the planet and its moon for two months, but never had a chance to release its two landers. The fatal moment came when a command was sent to take photographs of the Martian moon. In order for the spacecraft to turn its camera toward Phobos, it had to turn its antenna away from Earth. When it was time for the spacecraft to return its signal, there was silence. It is assumed that a computer malfunction left Phobos 2 unable to rotate back to the correct position to communicate with Earth, but the exact cause of the failure was never determined.

The Russians would try for Mars again in 1996.

Web content editor/writer: Pamela R. Smith