Though it had landed the first manmade craft on Mars, the Soviet series of Mars probes was a generally ill-fated lot, doomed by dust storms and by sudden and permanent blackouts even after successful first transmissions. These failures made the success of the Phobos probes even more important.
The repeated failures of the Mars missions dealt crushing blows to the Soviet space program, which halted missions to Mars for nearly 15 years. In 1988 they were ready to begin again with a bold effort to study one of Mars's moons, Phobos. This would be the first attempt to study and land on another planet's moon. The two spacecraft, Phobos 1 and 2, were supposed to enter Martian orbit and gradually move toward Phobos. By vaporizing small parts of the surface with a laser instrument, the Soviets wanted to study the chemical composition of the planet.
These two missions were anxiously watched by the entire world, as this was the most international planetary program ever attempted by the Soviet Union. It included equipment, cameras, and instruments from over 14 nations. Everyone waited with bated breath to begin receiving results. They were all bitterly disappointed. Phobos 1 was lost in September of 1988 when a controller sent the wrong command to the spacecraft's computer. It lost its lock on the Sun, became disoriented, and lost power. Phobos 2 did enter Mars orbit in 1989 and began to make observations of Mars and Phobos. Once the orbiter got within 800 kilometers of Phobos, however, an on-board computer malfunctioned resulting in a failure of orientation control, thus exhausting the craft's energy supply. The landers on each spacecraft were never released.
Photo. An artist's conception of a Soviet Phobos spacecraft. Courtesy of NASA, JPL.
Mission to Mars. An educational site created for the ThinkQuest contest.