Russia just launched its first interplanetary mission in 15 years

At 3:16 EST, Russia launched its first interplanetary mission in 15 years. The unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe is designed to drop a lander onto the surface of Phobos — one of Mars' two moons — and acquire soil samples from its surface before returning to Earth some time in 2014.

But the relationship between Russia's space program and the Red Planet is a tenuous one, at best — and Moscow's last interplanetary flight took place in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other words, this mission is as much about redeeming faith in the Russian deep-space program as it is about recovering space dirt.

The 1988 mission mentioned above was the second of two failed attempts to place a spacecraft on Phobos. The probe managed to make it to within 50 meters of the moon's surface before losing contact with Earth. the Mars 96 mission in 1996 failed even to reach Earth orbit.

"We haven't had a successful interplanetary expedition for over 15 years," said Alexander Zacharov, lead scientist at Moscow's Space Research Institute.

"In that time, the people, the technology, everything has changed. It's all new for us; in many ways we are working from scratch."

With any luck, the Institute's brand new take on space exploration will help break what many have referred to as Russia's Martian "curse" — a description that sounds a little overblown until you realize that Moscow has dispatched a total of 16 Mars-related missions in the last 50 years, and that not a single one has successfully completed its mission objectives, according to the BBC.

Many astronomers think that Phobos is an asteroid that was "captured" into orbit by Mars' gravitational pull, and that its geochemical makeup could hold clues dating back to our solar system's infancy. Assuming Phobos-Grunt does make it to Phobos (and we all have our fingers crossed), scientists hope that the soil samples recovered by the spacecraft will help shed light on processes underlying everything from planetary formation, to whether or not Mars was ever hospitable to life.

For now, however, Russia's astronomers are faced with the daunting task of simply getting the probe where it needs to be.

"There's no gravity to help you. It's like docking with a space station that has no airlock," said Pascal Lee, Mars planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"If I was realistic, I'd be very happy if they had a successful landing," Lee told Reuters. "We still don't know what Phobos is. It's a very vexing mystery."

[Via Reuters and BBC]
Top image via Spaceflight Now