The Russian Mars 96 mission was designed to send an orbiter, two small autonomous stations, and two surface penetrators to Mars to investigate the evolution and contemporary physics of the planet by studying the physical and chemical processes which took place in the past and which currently take place. The Mars 96 Orbiter was a 3-axis sun/star stabilized craft based on the Phobos design with two platforms for pointing and stabilizing instruments. The propulsion units were mounted on the bottom and two large solar panels extended out from opposite sides of the craft. The two penetrators were mounted on the bottom by the propulsion system, the two small stations were connected on top of the spacecraft, and a dish antenna extended off one of the sides perpendicular to the solar panels. The Mars 96 spacecraft had a launch mass (including propellant) of 6180 kg. Mars 96 was scheduled to arrive at Mars on 12 September 1997, about 10 months after launch, on a direct trajectory. About 4 to 5 days before arrival the small surface stations would have been released. The orbiter was to go into an elliptical 3-day transfer orbit about Mars, and the two penetrators to descend to the surface during the first month of orbit. The final orbit would have been a 14.77 hour elliptical orbit with a periapsis of 300 km.
The Mars 96 Orbiter carried 12 instruments to study the surface and atmosphere of Mars, 7 instruments to study plasma, fields, and particles, and 3 instruments for astrophysical studies. There were also radio science, a navigation TV camera, and a radiation and dosimetry control complex. The instruments were located directly on the sides of the craft, on one of the two platforms attached to the sides of the craft, or on the edges of the solar panels. 6180