'Earthlings' to visit Martian moon Phobos
Soon, the Martian moon Phobos would be visited by "Earthlings", in the form of an assortment of critters and microbes scheduled to make a round-trip journey to the natural satellite as passengers aboard a Russian spacecraft, scheduled to launch in October this year.
According to a report in Discovery News, the mission, called Phobos-Grunt, aims to return samples of the Martian moon to Earth for analysis.
It will be the first Russian-led mission to Mars since the loss of the Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 probes in 1988 and the botched launch of the Mars 96 spacecraft.
"I wish them luck," said University of Colorado planetary scientist Larry Esposito, who was a science team member on two of the failed Russian missions. "It's an opportunity to look at a primitive body in the solar system," he added.
In addition to planetary sciences, two teams of researchers are interested in learning how living organisms fare during the three-year round-trip journey to Mars.
The Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society is flying 10 different species in a small canister to test a theory that life could have been carried to Earth inside meteorites.
The samples include tardigrades - also known as water bears - seeds and microscopic bacteria.
"The organisms are being sent in a dormant state, like spores," program manager Bruce Betts told Discovery News.
Upon return to Earth, the organisms will be revived and tested to see if they can reproduce.
Russia's Space Research Institute in Moscow has a more ambitious plan.
Scientists there are proposing to send crustaceans, mosquito larvae, bacteria and fungi to visit Phobos and then return the critters to Earth.
The point of the Russian experiment is to study how cosmic radiation affects living organisms during the various stages of flight.
Phobos-Grunt also includes a small satellite built by China known as Yinghuo-1, which will ride piggyback with it and then be released for an independent study of Mars.
According to astrobiologist Jack Farmer, with Arizona State University in Tucson, the Phobos-Grunt mission is a good opportunity to test techniques and procedures to assure Mars samples do not become contaminated upon reaching Earth, and vice-versa.
Phobos is not regarded as a potential haven for extraterrestrial life, but it hasn't been ruled out either.
Its visitors will remain contained during their stay on Phobos, but even if they were somehow released, Farmer believes their chances of survival are very slim.