Says: prof. dr hab. inż. Marek Cała
Function: Dean of the Faculty of Mining and Geoengineering
Company: AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków
A number of space missions are planned for 2020s with the aim to explore the Earth’s nearest environment. One of them is LOOP. Over the next five years the European Space Agency will be sending the first probe into space to land on the surface of Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars. Polish scientists are also part of the LOOP project. Their task will be to design the lander’s foot which will touch the planetoid’s surface.
The LOOP (Landing Once on Phobos) mission is carried out by the European Space Agency. Scientists from Poland take part as well. The task of the team from the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków is to design a contact system between the lander’s foot and the surface of the moon of Mars so that the machine would not bounce back from Phobos’s surface.
“We want to land on the moon of Mars Phobos on the first attempt. This is complicated because acceleration there is less than 1 cm/s2. There is actual risk that the lander will simply bounce back from the moon’s surface. Our goal is to design a contact system between the lander’s foot and the land. The problem is that we don’t know what kind of surface this is. We know what’s on the Earth’s Moon and on Mars, but no one has ever landed on Phobos,” said prof. dr hab. inż. Marek Cała, Dean of the Faculty of Mining and Geoengineering, AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, in an interview with the Newseria Innowacje news agency.
In the history of astronautics there have been several attempts to land on Phobos, but none of them ended successfully. In 1988, the Soviet Union launched the Phobos programme, under which unmanned probes, Phobos 1 and Phobos 2, were to drop two stationary and one mobile lander on the moon’s surface. Because of the flight controller’s error, contact with the first probe was lost long before it entered the near-Mars orbit, and Phobos 2 managed to complete only the first part of the mission, i.e. photograph the moon’s surface and analyse the magnetic field and atmosphere on Mars. In 2011, Russians sent another mission to the moon of Mars – Phobos-Ground. The probe failed, got stuck in the low near-Earth orbit and burned in the atmosphere a few months after the launch.
According to Prof. dr hab. inż. Marek Cały, the greatest challenge faced by the LOOP mission will be to prepare an accurate model of Phobos’ surface. Before the probe is launched, the scientists from Kraków need to predict what the surface of the larger moon of Mars looks like.
“First we will carry out laboratory tests on two test stands, one in Warsaw and the other in Kraków. On their basis we will perform numerical simulations modelling the contact of the surface with the lander’s foot so as to be able to land on the first attempt, without bouncing back. If the lander’s foot does bounce back, the whole machine can overturn and get destroyed,” Professor Marek Cała explained.
Scientists from AGH will create a test stand with an area of approx. 2 sq. m to simulate various types of Mars surface, including sand, loose ground and hard rocks. Due to the many unknowns and potential problems which the vehicle may come across during landing, some of the tests will take the form of computer simulations. If the landing ends successfully, the probe will drill into the moon’s surface and analyse its structure.
“The primary goal is to collect ground samples, drill into the ground and see what is there and what it looks like. All this is preparation for the subsequent extra-terrestrial space exploration and mining. This is our long-term plan for the mid-2020s,” Professor Marek Cała announced.
The European Space Agency financing the LOOP project assumes that in the next two years all research work will be completed, and in 2022 and 2023 the probe will be launched. A competitive mission is prepared by the Japanese Space Agency JAXA, which in 2024 will send to Phobos a lander developed in cooperation with NASA.