Russian probe blasts off on mission to Mars moon
A Russian probe on Wednesday blasted off on a three year return mission to Mars that aims to bring the first sample of the Martian moon Phobos back to Earth, the Russian space agency said.
The Phobos-Grunt probe blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Zenit-2SB rocket at 0016 (2016 GMT Tuesday) in what Russia hopes will be its first successful planetary mission since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a live transmission from Roscosmos showed.
The initial launch went smoothly and at 0028 (2028 GMT) Phobos-Grunt went into its initial orbit of the Earth, from which it will then be slung out towards Mars around five hours after lift-off, mission control said.
If all goes to plan, Phobos-Grunt should reach Mars in 2012 and then deploy its lander for Phobos in 2013, scooping a chunk of its surface before returning the sample back to Earth in August 2014.
The project is of huge importance for the Russian space programme which wants to show it is able to undertake ambitious planetary projects that can rival those of the United States.
Post-Soviet Russia endured one of its most humiliating space failures in November 1996 when its Mars-96 probe broke up after launch in a disaster that appeared to symbolise the disintegration of the Russian space programme.
Stung by that catastrophe, Russia has not attempted a single planetary mission until now, leaving solar system exploration the preserve of NASA which has sent probes out to the furthest-flung planets of the solar system.
© 2011 AFP