In the 1980s, the Soviet Union launched the Phobos program to study and explore the two moons of the planet Mars, Phobos and Deimos. The unmanned probe called the Phobos 2 was one of two such probes, which were equipped with loads of some of the most state of the art instruments and equipment available, as well as two small landers that were to be deployed to the surface of Phobos. The two moons were already considered two of the most enigmatic objects in the solar system, with the famed author and scientist Dr. Carl Sagan once musing that the acceleration of Phobos didn’t make sense and that it must actually be hollow, and this mission was to be the first good look Earthlings had ever gotten. Unfortunately, some very weird events would make sure that all did not go according to plan, and so would begin the tale of a probe possibly destroyed by aliens.
The mission actually started off very smoothly and with much promise. Phobos 1 was launched on July 7, 1988 and Phobos 2 on July 12, 1988. Although a malfunction took Phobos 1 out of the picture in September of 1988 while still in transit, the Phobos 2 operated perfectly for the entire trip all the way to Mars, collecting data along the way, and inserted itself into orbit around the planet on January 29, 1989. It was here where it began to experience problems, with two of its three onboard computer systems experiencing malfunctions, yet after taking numerous photos of the Martian surface it nevertheless soldiered on towards its final destination, which was the moon Phobos. It did manage to approach the moon and carried out three successful preliminary encounters with Phobos, taking 37 high quality images of the moon’s surface before things got strange. On March 28, 1989, the Phobos 2, which had been performing admirably despite its computer issues, just abruptly and without explanation stopped working, right as it was synching into a permanent orbit around the moon.
This might have been chalked up to a mere system malfunction, but it gets a bit weirder when looking at some of the evidence surrounding it. First of all were some of the photographs set back by the probe in the time leading up to its demise, which were seen as very curious, indeed. In one of these images, indeed the probe’s last image just before contact was lost, during a time in which it was aligning itself to the orbit of Phobos, there can be seen what appears to be a long, spindle shaped or cylindrical object estimated as measuring around 20 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide, and which appears to be somewhere in the atmosphere between the probe and the surface of Mars. Although it might be easy to write it off as an optical illusion or shadow, the structure was photographed on two different color cameras from slightly differing angles, and it also turns up in the infrared footage. At the time, even the chairman of the Soviet equivalent of NASA, said of the photo, “One image appears to include an odd-shaped object between the spacecraft and Mars.”
Adding to the mystery were other photos taken earlier by the probe, which seemed to show strange rectangular forms on the surface of Mars, and making it even more mysterious still would be that it was later stated by the Kaliningrad control center and reported in the October 19, 1989 issue of Nature Magazine that an investigation into the death of the Phobos 2 had concluded that the probe had been spinning wildly after its final transmission, almost as if it had been impacted by something. You can perhaps see where this is going. The idea among some in the UFO community is that this probe had stumbled across something it was not supposed to see, and that it was either struck by the object in the picture, which has been called a “mothership,” or shot down by it. It certainly doesn’t help that the Soviets were loathe to release the images in the first place, long refusing to show these frames to the public, with most of this being leaked to the West by a Russian astronaut and pilot by the name of Colonel Dr. Marina Popovich, causing whispers of a cover-up.
The images and their close proximity to the loss of the Phobos 2 probe have managed to generate discussion ever since. It has been suggested that the cylindrical object is nothing more than a shadow of Phobos the moon and that the end of transmissions from the probe is merely a coincidence, but others have pointed out that the outline appears to be too distinct and the shape not consistent to the shadow of the moon, which has actually been photographed before. The more fringe idea is that there is something out there that does not appreciate our snooping around, and indeed there have been an oddly high number of such Mars probes and missions that have experienced difficulties or been lost. One more recent high-profile case was NASA’s 1992 Mars Observer mission, which was meant to undertake a 2-year mapping of the planet’s surface, but which was suddenly lost in August of 1993 to disappear without a trace. There has been so much trouble in studying Mars that of course there are some who speculate that perhaps there is something out there that does not want us there.
It is hard to know just what is going on here. Is this all just misidentification mixed with coincidence? What really happened to the Phobos 2 probe? Was this just a technical glitch, as they’d like everyone to believe, or something far stranger? What do those photos really show? Mars has definitely become ground zero for a wide variety of mysterious images from both its surface and above, and this certainly adds to the pile of strangeness associated with the Red Planet.