Russia to grab sample from hurtling Martian moon

Enhanced-color view of Phobos obtained by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 23, 2008. Stickney crater, the largest, is on the right side.

The mysterious hurtling moons of Barsoom may soon be a little less mysterious thanks to an ambitious Russian mission set to lift off today, and return in three years with a piece of one of them:

(MSNBC) — The Phobos-Grunt mission is slated to blast off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome at 3:16 p.m. EST today. The main goal is to grab some dirt from Phobos’ surface and return the samples to Earth in 2014 (“grunt” means “soil” in Russian). If successful, Phobos-Grunt could shed a great deal of light on the early days of Mars and the solar system, experts say. It also would be a big morale boost for the Russian space program, which has suffered through the failure of three other Mars missions since the late 1980s.

Phobos is one of the weirder moons in the solar system. It’s tiny, about ten lumpy miles across, and it orbits close to Mars, about 5500 miles above the surface (It’s slowly spirling in and will impact Mars at some point). Which means as small as Phobos is, it still shows a pretty good-sized disk as seen from Mars. It also orbits super fast, and even though it orbits in the same direction Mars rotates, it still “Beats Mars out, so it rise sin the west and sets in the east about once a day as seen from the sandy surface. Mars on the other hand as seen from Phobos would be huge, about the size of a large dinner plate held a foot or two away from your eyes, and the cumulative light from Mars would light up Phobos as bright as the sun. Which would be damn useful on the little moon; it’s one of the darkest surfaces in the solar system, about the same shade as medium dark charcoal!

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