Worldwide members of the Planetary Society await the final fate of the Phobos LIFE (Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment) biomodule. Intended to share a roundtrip to Mars' moon Phobos, the tiny experiment became stuck in low Earth orbit when its host--the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft--failed to set out across interplanetary space. Phobos-Grunt is now expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere as soon as this coming weekend. Trackers won't be able to predict where debris may fall until just a few hours before the event, so it's impossible to say whether the biomodule will be recovered.
Planetary Society Chief Executive Officer Bill Nye leads the deep concern regarding the ultimate outcome of this mission. "What we've seen is heartbreaking reinforcement of an oft-repeated maxim. Space is hard! We are disappointed that our remarkable test of the hardiness of living organisms will not get the 34 months in deep space we had hoped for," said Mr. Nye. "Still, we are very proud to have been a part of this mission. We're grateful to Roscosmos for incorporating our experiment in their spacecraft. We also offer our condolences to the China National Space Administration; it's their first Mars mission and a disappointment." Like Phobos LIFE, the Yinghuo-1 orbiter hoped to catch a ride to Mars on Phobos-Grunt.
The Society's Director of Projects, Bruce Betts, is following developments very closely. Dr. Betts has served as the LIFE Experiment Manager for both the highly successful Shuttle LIFE mission last spring, and for Phobos Grunt. "Because we can't predict the details of the re-entry, we can't predict whether the Phobos LIFE biomodule will survive, and certainly we can't predict whether it will land somewhere it could be recovered," Betts commented. "In the unlikely event the Phobos LIFE biomodule is recovered, we would want to study the organisms inside. Though not the long deep space experience we had hoped for, there still will be scientific value to study of the organisms even after just two months in low Earth orbit."
Planetary Society Executive Director Emeritus Louis Friedman initiated the LIFE experiment and continues to play an important role. He points to the participation of scientists around the world as a lasting success story. "The Planetary Society has championed and often created innovative, low-cost science and education projects that engage the public in planetary exploration and global collaboration. LIFE is a terrific example of just this sort of endeavor, and I am sure we will try again on another mission."
Bill Nye insists that Phobos LIFE will not dampen the Society's dedication. "Rest assured that we will continue to press forward and seek answers to those deepest of questions: Where did we come from, and are we alone? If there's a mission like this with a unique way to explore the Solar System, we will always work to be part of it."