The Phobos Incident

“At most, terrestrial men fancied that there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise.” – H. G. Wells

The 1980s were a time of rapid and booming growth in science and technology all over the world, signaling the end of the decades-long Cold War that had affected the US and Russia.

After the war was over, the US and Russia entered a renaissance era, especially within their respective space programs. The Russian Space Agency (RSA) started working on a new pair of space probes for an unmanned mission to planet Mars. These probes were called “Phobos 1” and “Phobos 2”, and were the culmination of the effort of Russian and 14 other countries, including the US, Germany, and France.

In July 1988, Phobos 1 and 2 were launched in the direction of Mars to conduct studies and data gathering of the Red Planet and its subsequent moons, “Phobos” and “Deimos”.

Phobos space probes were the next generation in the Venera-type planetary missions since 1975, and were highly technologically advanced for their time. Among many sensors and instruments aboard Phobos 1 and 2 were, X-Ray and Gamma-Ray Spectrometers, Magnetometers, and Magnetic Susceptibility Sensors, Thermal Sensors, Tiltmeters, Seismometers, Radiation Detectors, a DAS Lander, and the VST TV Imaging System that would eventually broadcast some of the most perplexing and incredible images ever to be observed by a spacecraft. 

Image Credit: Russian Space Agency

The DAS lander is a module that was supposed to launch two landers, a stationary platform and a mobile hopper from the main probe onto the surface of the moon Phobos after the orbital objectives of the main probes were complete. The two landers would stay on the surface of Phobos and conduct atmospheric studies of Mars and surface composition of its satellite until mechanical failure.

However, Phobos 1 and 2 never completed their long-term objectives.

Phobos 1 – scheduled to arrive in January 1989, was unfortunately lost en route two months later due to a radio command error that caused the probe to lose its lock on the Sun. 

Phobos 2, however, was lost under more mysterious circumstances.

The second probe continued its journey towards the orbit of the Red Planet, and successfully arrived in January 1989. It gathered data on the Sun, Mars, and Phobos and returned a total of 37 images of the Red Planet and its satellite. 

On March 1st, one particular image transmitted back to Earth by Phobos 2 was released on a Canadian TV, which caused unrest among scientists.

Image Credit: Russian Space Agency

This shot presents an infrared scan radiometer image of the Martian surface that clearly showed defined rectangular areas, much resembling a city block. 

Since there were no corresponding surface features taken by the probe’s regular cameras, this suggests the heat signature of what may be a set of underground caverns or channels that are just too geometrically regular to be considered as a natural formation.

According to Dr. John Becklake of the London Science Museum: “The city-like pattern is 60 kilometers wide and could be easily mistaken for an aerial view of Los Angeles.”

Image Credit: Russian Space Agency

The images were certainly unsettling as Phobos 2 didn’t transmit any more photos 24 days later. By the time, the probe synched roughly into the same orbit as Phobos and Deimos and continued to generate images of the surface of Mars.

Scientists waited to receive more images and hopefully to gain some clarity on the situation. The next images however, were even more puzzling.

Image Credit: Russian Space Agency

These “unusual images” that were broadcasted on a Soviet television segment, showed what appears to be a defined long thin shadow of an unknown object cast on the surface of Mars. 

The shadows were captured by Phobos 2 probe in multiple different frames, and were observable in both optical and infrared spectrums, as we can see features of the Martian surface through them. 

The shadow has an iconic shape to it, which stretches close to 300 kilometers across the surface of Mars. Dr. Becklake described it as “something that is in between the spacecraft and Mars” 

“they [Soviets] saw something that should not be there.” 

The shadow images were the last images to be released from the Phobos program as Phobos 2 probe lost contact with Soviet mission control on March 28, 1989.

There were whispers from the scientific community that it had detected something strange just before going completely silent. On March 31st, 1989, headlines from Moscow stated that Phobos 2 captured strange photos of Mars before losing contact with its base.

Until three years later, in December 1991, Dr. Marina Popovich, an Air Force Colonel involved with the RSA, held a press conference at the Russian consulate in San Francisco, where she revealed to the world the final Phobos 2 image before its failure.

Image Credit: Russian Space Agency

The last transmission from the probe was a photograph of a gigantic cylindrical object – approx. 20Km long cigar-shaped “mother-ship” she told, hanging or parked next to the Martian moon Phobos, which was taken on March 25, 1989.

This cigar-shaped craft according to Dr. Popovich was apparently the object casting the shadows on the Martian surface in earlier images.

After the last frame was transmitted back to Earth, Phobos 2 disappeared. According to the Russians, it was destroyed, probably knocked out with an energy pulse beam.

What Dr. Popovich revealed had certainly shaken the public. To many, it is still the most damning evidence supporting intelligent life out there.


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