For the first time in 15 years, Russia is getting back into the business of interplanetary space science. It plans to launch an ambitious mission on 8 November to return a sample of soil from the Martian moon Phobos.
The Phobos-Grunt mission (which means Phobos-soil) would welcome Russia back to the elite group of nations — the United States, Japan and the European countries — that do science beyond the Moon. China would also join the club, as embedded in the spacecraft is a small Chinese satellite, Yinghuo-1, that will separate from Phobos-Grunt to orbit and observe Mars.
Success could pave the way for Russia to pursue more ambitious missions based on similar designs — missions have been proposed to Mercury, Venus or even Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The major outcome is that Russia might establish its credibility again,” says Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow, which has developed most of the 20 science instruments on the payload. “It would open the door for major international missions.”