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Phobos Mission Robot Passes Tests
July 29, 2011   
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The Polish geological robot Chomik (Polish for hamster)—built at the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences to collect a sample of soil from Phobos, one of Mars’ moons, as part of Russian space mission Phobos Soil—has successfully passed its first tests.

After the tests, which ended in early April, the flight model was transferred to the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow where the device will be integrated with the Phobos Soil mission lander and will fly toward Mars in a few months. Next year, the mission lander will reach the surface of Phobos. The Chomik will then collect a soil sample, which will reach Earth in three years.

The Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences signed an agreement to build the Chomik device with the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Lavochkin Research and Production Association in March last year.

“Such complex projects usually take five years to implement, but we managed to do it in less than a year,” says Jerzy Grygorczuk, Ph.D., of the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the head of the Chomik experiment and the main constructor of the MUPUS device for the Rosetta comet mission. “This was possible because Chomik is a second-generation instrument and we were able to draw on earlier experiences.”

The use of a geological robot under low gravity conditions requires caution. There are concerns that reaction forces could knock the lander over. “Our design prevents this from happening,” says Marcin Dobrowolski, one of the constructors. “Chomik transmits very weak reaction forces to the lander. During digging, it relies on the friction between the ground and the walls of the inserted container.”

Complex instrument

Chomik is a complex instrument that weighs only 1.4 kg. It was designed and built entirely at the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences. It consists of three main components: the main unit, an electronic control unit, and a lock and release mechanism. This last component protects the instrument against vibration and overload during the takeoff and landing.

The main unit itself consists of an electromagnetic hammer and a bar with a sample container, large enough to take a few cubic centimeters of soil sample. The motion of the hammer will drive the casing into the Phobos regolith, the layer of loose material covering the surface. The shape of the container and special algorithms controlling the process of the insertion make it possible to collect samples from rocky, porous and loose soil, the researchers say. After the container with the sample is discarded, it will expose a pivot at the end of the unit and two sensors. The pivot will make it possible to crush rocks and prepare samples for other instruments of the lander and the sensors will measure the thermal properties of the soil of the Martian moon.

In the course of the project, the Space Research Center built four models of Chomik. The first one was a simplified structural and thermal model, which is now used by engineers in Moscow in work related to the integration of the device with the lander of the Phobos Soil probe.

“The next two models were fully operational and we and our Russian colleagues used them for intensive electronic, vibration and thermal tests,” says Tomasz Kuciński, a student working with the project team. The fourth model will be the one that will fly toward Mars.

To Mars and back

The Russian Phobos Soil probe will be launched in November and is expected to reach the Red Planet several months later. A week after landing on Mars, the probe will launch a return unit with a capsule containing a soil sample encased in the Polish container. The capsule will land in Kazakhstan in mid-2014. After extracting the sample and following a period of quarantine, the container will return to the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The Martian moon Phobos has an irregular shape and a relatively small density. It is 27 x 22 x 18 km in size and believed to be either highly porous or made up of ice and rocks.

“Phobos is a very interesting object. It may resemble bodies from the edges of our solar system forming the Kuiper belt beyond the orbit of Neptune, says Joanna Gurgurewicz, Ph.D., adding that an alternative hypothesis holds that Phobos was not captured by Mars but formed on its orbit. The measurements carried out by the Chomik instrument will help solve this mystery.

Work to build the Chomik has been financed by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education as part of an international project that also covers the construction of another, more powerful, geological robot.

Devices designed by researchers from the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences have taken part in many high-profile space missions over the years. For example, sensors built at the center were part of the Huygens lander, which landed on the surface of Titan, a moon of Saturn, in 2005, in what was the farthest landing in the history of humankind. The MUPUS device installed on the Rosetta mission lander will soon insert itself into the nucleus of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. The Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences has also built a hi-tech device called Kret (Polish for mole) for use in future geological examinations of the Moon.
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