Russia's Martian Woes: Marsnik 1 to Fobos-Grunt

Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.
Even when the "spaghetti" is interplanetary spacecraft and the "wall" is Mars 

For all my fellow space aficionados out there, no doubt you've been eagerly following the three robotic spacecraft launched to Mars this past month: the United Arab Emirates' Hope, China's Tianwen-1, and the United States' Perseverance, all taking advantage of the biennial alignment of Earth and Mars. Absent from this most recent salvo though is our old Cold War rival, Russia. In fact, even since Soviet days and the dawn of the Space Age, Russia has struggled mightily with sending spacecraft to Mars. This isn't a knock on the Russian space program; besides its widely-known achievements in human spaceflight, Russia has sent several probes to Venus and holds the distinction of being the only country to land on and return images from the hellish surface of our sister planet. But Mars has been a harsh mistress for Russia, spanning 6 decades, an astonishingly disheartening 19 mission failures, and no successful landers

As someone who watched a lot of Tom & Jerry as a kid, I enjoyed this meme by @gourmet_space_memes on Instagram

After Sputnik's success in 1957 demonstrated the feasibility of robotic satellites, American and Soviet scientists immediately began designing more powerful launch vehicles capable of carrying more sophisticated spacecraft to destinations beyond Earth orbit. Naturally, due to both proximity and the race to put a man on the moon, these early spacecraft had their sights set on the moon. Despite scores of colossal failures, whereby several Soviet Luna probes and American Pioneer and Ranger probes met their untimely demise due to rocket explosions, unexpected communications cutoffs, or a litany of other catastrophes, it was the Soviets who launched the first successful lunar probe: the impactor Luna 2, which reached the moon in 1959. Seeing as we Americans couldn't replicate this feat until 1964, with Ranger 7, if in the year 1960 you asked an impartial observer which side would launch the first successful Martian spacecraft, no doubt the answer would've been the Soviets

The Soviet Luna 2 on the left and the American Ranger 7 on the right

Riding high on their momentum, the Soviets began their Mars program in earnest at OKB-1 (Experimental Design Bureau-1). The first two attempts were set for 1960, launching the identical Mars 1M spacecraft (aptly named by Western media as Marsnik-1 and Marsnik-2, a portmanteau of Mars and Sputnik). The engineers knew they needed a more powerful rocket than the R7 booster that launched Sputnik, so they rushed to develop the Molniya rocket ("Lightning" in Russian), with its improved engines and an additional 3rd and 4th stage (known as Blok-I and Blok-L), as quickly as possible to meet the 1960 deadline. But as the launch date approached, the rocket fell behind schedule: new theoretical studies in orbital mechanics demonstrated that instead of a direct ascent trajectory, it was more fuel efficient to launch first to a parking orbit in LEO, then fire the upper stage engine again to set a course for Mars. The resulting design changes caused them to miss the optimal launch window, forcing mission planners to remove several of the spacecraft's scientific instruments to decrease mass. Engineers had barely tested the Blok-I and Blok-L stages before certifying the rocket and sending it off to Baikonur for launch, which ultimately doomed the missions. The Blok-I on Marsnik-1 malfunctioned due to excessive vibration, and the Blok-I on Marsnik-2 didn't even ignite as cryogenic oxygen leaked into the RP-1 inlet valve and froze the fuel solid

The Molniya rocket and the Mars 1M spacecraft it was supposed to launch

Over the next decade, the Soviets attempted 7 additional Mars missions, most of them failing due to malfunctions in the ever-problematic Molniya rocket as well as the Proton-K rocket that succeeded it (Mars 1 in 1962 and Zond 2 in 1964 made it past Earth orbit, only to be lost after communications unexpectedly cut out). But by the early 1970s, it looked like the Soviet Union was getting on the right track - the Proton-K rocket had become more reliable, and in 1971 it launched the identical Mars 2 and Mars 3 spacecraft, both of which carried a lander component in addition to the orbiter. This time, both orbiters were successful and transmitted data for several months, although the results for the landers were more mixed: Mars 2's lander crashed when its parachute failed to deploy (still making it the first man-made object to reach the Martian surface), while Mars 3's lander reached the surface intact, only to cut out 90 seconds later. Alas, this progress was not to be long-lived. Mars 4-7 launched in rapid succession in the summer of 1973, and all four spacecraft failed while in the vicinity of Mars. When the next Earth-Mars alignment came in 1975, the American spacecraft Viking 1 & 2 took the cake as the first successful Martian landers

The Mars 2 lander and a Proton-K rocket similar to the one that launched it

After Viking, there was a lull from both the Americans and the Soviets in launching Martian probes. The Soviet Union launched two spacecraft intended to land on Mars' moon Phobos in 1988, both of which failed, and in the 29 years since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has only launched two more Mars missions. Mars 96 launched in 1996 and was a particularly problematic failure - it reached Earth orbit properly, but a problem with the Proton-K rocket's upper stage caused the spacecraft to crash back to Earth, spilling the 200 grams of plutonium-238 intended to power the lander (the Russians have never specified where the radioactive debris fell and never mounted a search). And most recently in 2011, the Fobos-Grunt spacecraft that would've performed an ambitious sample-return from Phobos instead crashed back down to Earth when the Fregat upper stage of its Zenit rocket failed to ignite. The launch failure also destroyed the Chinese Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter that was being carried by the same rocket, obliterating what would've been China's first interplanetary mission; no surprise that 9 years later, China launched Tianwen-1 on its own rocket

The Mars 96 probe before launch on the left, and an artist's depiction of Fobos-Grunt crashing back to Earth on the right

Long story short, Russia has certainly borne the brunt of Mars mission failures to date, though the US, Europeans, and Japanese have had some failures of their own. Russia's next attempt at redemption will come in 2022 when the joint European-Russian Rosalind Franklin rover launches from Baikonur. Six decades after the first attempted interplanetary spacecraft, we'll see if Russia can reverse the curse!

Russian Mars missions to date. Source: Wikipedia

For more detail into the early Soviet Mars probes, I recommend this article!

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