The Phobos mysteries:

An interesting although unverified text about the loss of Phobos 2, author unknown.


The main section about phobos is here.


Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars, has itself always been considered a rather mysterious object, as has its smaller twin, Deimos. Joseph Shklovskii noted member of the Soviet Academy of science and co-writer with Dr Carl Sagan of 'Intelligent life in the universe', once calculated from the estimated density of the Martian atmosphere and the peculiar "acceleration" of Phobos, that the satellite must be hollow. Could Phobos be a hollowed-out space station of huge proportions?

In July 1988, the Russians launched two unmanned satellite probes - Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 - in the direction of Mars, and with the primary intention of investigating the planet's mysterious moon, Phobos. Phobos 1 was unfortunately lost en route two months later, reportedly because of a radio command error. Phobos 2 was also ultimately lost in the most intriguing circumstances, but not before it had beamed back certain images and information from the planet Mars itself.

Phobos 2 arrived safely at Mars in January 1989 and entered into an orbit around Mars as the first step at its destination towards its ultimate goal: to transfer to an orbit that the would make it fly almost in tandem with the Martian moonlet called Phobos (hence the spacecraft name) and explore the moonlet with highly sophisticated equipment that included two packages of instruments to be placed on the moonlet's surface.

All went well until Phobos 2 aligned itself with Phobos, the Martian moonlet. Then, on 28th March, the Soviet mission control center acknowledged sudden communication "problems" with the spacecraft; and Tass, 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."

What had caused the Phobos 2 spacecraft to be lost? The answer came about three months later. Pressed by the international participants in the Phobos mission to provide definitive data, the Soviet authorities released a taped television transmission Phobos 2 sent in its last moments except for the last frames, taken just seconds before the spacecraft fell silent. The television clip was shown by some TV stations in Europe and Canada as part of weekly 'diary' programs, as a curiosity and not as a hot news item.

The television sequence thus released focused on two anomalies. The first was a network of straight lines in the area of the Martian equator; some of the lines were short, some were longer, some were thin, some were wide enough to look like rectangular shapes 'embossed' in the Martian surface. Arranged in rows parallel to each other, the pattern covered an area of some six hundred square kilometers (more than two hundred and thirty square miles). The anomaly appeared to be far from a natural phenomenon.

The television clip was accompanied by a live comment by Dr. John Becklake of the London Science Museum. He described the phenomenon as very puzzling, because the pattern seen on the surface of Mars was photographed not with the spacecraft's optical camera but with its infrared camera- a camera that takes pictures of objects using the heat that they radiate, and not by the play of light and shadow on them. In other words, the pattern of parallel lines and rectangles covering an area of almost two hundred and fifty square miles was a source of heat radiation. It is so highly unlikely that a natural source of heat radiation (a geyser or a concentration of radioactive minerals under the surface, for example) would create such a perfect geometric pattern. When viewed over and over again, the pattern definitely looks artificial; but as for what it was, the scientist said "I certainly don't know."

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 of 8 April 1989, described the following: "The features are either on the Martian surface or in the lower atmosphere. The features are between 20 and 25 kilometers wide and do not resemble any known geological formation. They are spindle - shaped and proving to be intriguing and puzzling."

Since no coordinates for the precise location of this "anomalous feature" have been released publicly, it is impossible to judge its relationship to another puzzling feature on the surface of Mars that can be seen in Mariner 9 frame 4209-75. It is also located in the equatorial area (at longitude 186.4) and has been described as "unusual indentations with radial arms protruding from a central hub," caused (according to NASA scientists) by the melting and collapse of permafrost layers. The design of the features, bringing to mind the structure of a modern airport with a circular hub from which long structures housing the airplane gates radiate, can be better visualized when the photograph is reversed (showing depressions and protrusions).

About the Mariner image 4209-75, see here.

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This page was last updated on February 17, 2003