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The Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft faced the extremely tough challenge of landing on Phobos, a small Martian moon less than 30 km across, collecting soil samples from its surface and returning them to Earth… Unfortunately, it never quite made it.

The Russian federal space agency Roscosmos had made the Phobos-Grunt mission to explore one of Mars’ two moons the top priority of its space science programme. The spacecraft was a technology demonstrator designed to test a landing and ascent capability on Phobos, and to return a soil sample to Earth. Launched on 8 November 2011 by a Russian Zenit-Fregat vehicle, its mission ended prematurely two months later after it failed to reach Mars orbit.

Phobos-Grunt was to observe the surface of Phobos for one year and then send back 200 g of rock and dust to Earth for closer analysis. Scientists had great expectations of this sample-collection mission, through which they were hoping to discover Phobos’ origins—for example, is it an asteroid that was captured into Mars’ orbit?—and gain new insights into the Martian environment.

Phobos-Grunt was carrying 50 kg of equipment, including several French instruments. The GSMA molecular and atmospheric spectrometry laboratory at the University of Reims helped to build the laser spectrometer. The IAS space astrophysics institute supplied the cameras and visible microscope, as well as the infrared microscope with the LESIA space and astrophysics instrumentation research laboratory and Russia’s IKI space research institute. The LATMOS atmospheres, environments and space observations laboratory worked on the gas phase chromatograph, solar-occultation spectrometer and ion sensor. CNES, meanwhile, oversaw the instrument contribution to Phobos-Grunt from the French research laboratories partnering the mission.