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The Strange Case Of Russia's Phobos-2 Mars Probe - City grid and mysterious object visible

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03/21/2018 05:52 PM
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The Strange Case Of Russia's Phobos-2 Mars Probe - City grid and mysterious object visible

The Soviet Union launched two probes towards Mars in mid-1988. Its initial series of small probes (1960-1965) had been a total disaster, and a series of heavier probes (1969-1973) didn't do much better. But this third generation was much more promising.

The main body of the spacecraft was of an entirely new design. It had new engines, new computers, new communications gear. And this new mission carried subsatellites to be dropped onto the inner Martian moon, Phobos.

The first probe was lost due to an erroneous command on the outbound leg. The second vehicle was crippled by electronics failures and by the time it reached Mars on January 30, 1989, it was operating on its last and lowest-powered radio.

Nonetheless, it slipped into orbit around Mars and slowly matched its path with Phobos. As it closed in, it also made observations of Mars.

A dozen times, it turned its cameras away from Mars and towards Phobos. This required the whole spacecraft to turn, since a movable "scan platform" hadn't been installed. The maneuver also turned the dish antenna away from Earth, cutting communications for several hours each time.

On March 27, 1989, the probe began another Phobos photo maneuver, and as expected radio signals ceased. But after the planned maneuver, when listeners on Earth expected to reacquire the signal, nothing was heard. More careful listening picked up brief bursts of radio signals, as if the dish antenna were swinging wildly through space and only occasionally beaming back towards Earth. Then -- only silence.

But not for long. Soon a strange and wonderful story grew and spread, about mysterious structures observed on the surface of Mars. The probe's last view, so the tale continued, showed a miles-long oval object closing in. The object's elliptical shadow could be seen on the surface of Mars thousands of miles below.

And indeed, cigar-shaped shadows were plainly visible in many of the 37 photographs that the doomed probe sent back to Earth during the 60 days it survived circling Mars.

Such images are not unusual in the archives of American Mars orbiters, from Mariner-9 to the Viking Orbiter twins, to the Mars Global Surveyor, still at work there to this day. In those cases, what was seen were shadows of the moonlet Phobos, stretched by being projected at a low angle to the Martian surface.