Each vehicle carried a lander designed to set down on Phobos’
surface and then use its spring-loaded legs to move about the moon’s surface to
make chemical, magnetic and gravity observations at different locations (4).
The mission, however, was not a success. Phobos 1 operated
until controllers lost contact with it on 2nd September 1988 within
just two months of takeoff. This followed a routine software upload, during
which an erroneous command apparently deactivated the attitude control thrusters
resulting in the spacecraft orienting the solar arrays away from the sun thus
depleting the batteries. Phobos 1 was never to reach Martian orbit. However Phobos 2 did, but not without courting a controversy
that still rages today.
This sister craft entered Martian orbit on 29th
January 1989, however no further word was received from the Soviet space
programme until 24th February 1989 when the Associated Press reported
that Phobos 2 was approaching Phobos itself (5).
Then, on 28th March 1989, the Soviet Mission Control
Centre acknowledged there had been communications problems with the spacecraft.
Tass, then the official Soviet News Agency, reported that "Phobos 2 had failed
to communicate with Earth as scheduled after completing an operation yesterday
around the Martian moon Phobos. Scientists at mission control have been unable
to establish stable radio contact (6)." And so the matter should have ended
there, for Phobos was by no means the first failure of the space programme,
especially from the Russians who had been forced to bear witness (if not to
issue acknowledgement) to many other such disappointments.
Yet the matter did not end there, for over the following
months, many of the international participants in the programme pressed the
Soviets to provide further data about the loss of the craft. As a result of
these representations the Soviets finally released a taped television
transmission sent by Phobos 2 in its last moments except for the last few
frames. The Soviets did not deny these final frames existed, but they gave
no explanation for withholding them, only confirming that they had done so. The television sequence released was shown on some television
stations in Europe and Canada. The sequence focused on the anomalies of a
network of straight lines in the area of the Martian equator; some of the lines
were short, some were longer, some thin, others wide enough to resemble
rectangular shapes ‘embossed’ on the Martian surface. Arranged in rows parallel
to each other, the pattern covered an area of more than two hundred and thirty
The television clip was accompanied by live commentary from Dr
John Becklake of the Science Museum in London, England. He described the
phenomenon as puzzling, because the pattern was photographed not with the
spacecraft’s optical camera, but with an infrared camera. (A camera taking
pictures using the heat they radiate rather than their physical appearance.)
This appeared to mirror the formation observed by mariner 9. (This formation and
that observed by Phobos 2, could, of course, have been a natural formation
generated by some form of heat radiation.) Dr. Becklake of the Science Museum was asked for an opinion on
what the structure seen on the released Phobos frames could be, could only
conclude "I certainly don’t know (7)."
According to Boris Bolitsky, science correspondent for Radio
Moscow, just before radio contact was lost with Phobos 2, several unusual images
were radioed back to Earth, described by the Russian as ‘quite remarkable
features.’ A report taken from New Scientist described the following: "The
features are either on the Martian surface or in the lower atmosphere. The
features are between 20 and 25 kilometres wide and do not resemble any known
geological formation. They are spindle-shaped and proving to be intriguing and
puzzling (8)." The probe Phobos also witnessed other apparently anomalous
A thin shadow across the surface of Mars was shown on the
Russian television sequence from Phobos. Some scientists claim that this is
merely the shadow of Phobos itself, however the shadow bears no comparison to an
earlier shadow of Phobos on the Martian surface photographed by Mariner 9.
Mariner photograph showed a shadow that was a rounded ellipse and fuzzy at the
edges whereas the Phobos 2 picture was of a thin ellipse with sharp rather than
rounded points and stood out fairly sharply over the surface. Dr. Becklake
described it as being "something that is between the spacecraft and Mars,
because we can see the Martian surface below it." He also noted that both the
optical and infrared camera had observed the object.
Something curious appeared to be happening around Mars. The
Soviet Newspaper Isvestia reported on 16th April 1989; "Three
days before the accident [loss of Phobos 2], the star sensor of the Phobos II
probe registered in the field of observation an unknown object of considerable
dimensions (9)." Dr Becklake also noted "as the last picture was halfway
through, they [the Soviet’s] saw something that should not have been there
(10)." He added the Soviets "have not yet released this picture and we won’t
speculate on what it shows."
Becklake didn’t have to speculate for long as the missing
picture from Phobos 2 was later smuggled out of the then USSR and made
public at a conference in 1991.