Russian probe fails to take route for Mars

9th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

A Russian probe on a mission to a moon of Mars Wednesday failed to take its course to the red planet, in a potentially devastating blow to Moscow's hopes of resuming planetary exploration.

The Phobos-Grunt probe blasted off successfully from the Baikonur cosmodrome overnight but did not manage to leave its Earth orbit as planned several hours later to go on its planned trajectory for Mars, the Russian space agency said.

Engineers now have three days to send the probe out to Mars while batteries last. The loss of the probe would be a disaster for Russia, which has not had a single successful planetary mission since the fall of the Soviet Union.

"We have three days while the batteries are still working," said Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin. "I would not say it's a failure. It's a non-standard situation, but it is a working situation."

The hugely ambitious mission aimed to place the craft in orbit around Mars, land a probe on the surface of its largest moon Phobos, scoop up soil and bring the first ever sample of the Martian satellite back to Earth.

The probe continues to orbit Earth and experts now must try to reprogramme it and direct it toward the red planet.

Popovkin said that mission control was aware of the position of the probe in Earth orbit and it still had fuel on board.

But even ahead of launch, Popovkin had admitted the mission was a "risk", saying that 90 percent of the craft consisted of completely new equipment as Russia had done almost nothing in planetary exploration for 20 years.

"The risk of a failure was very high. Unfortunately, the worst predictions have come true," a source in the Russian space industry told the Interfax news agency.

The chances of saving the probe were minimal, added the source, who was not named. "In my opinion it would be a miracle," it added.

Moscow was desperate to show it could be a superpower in space exploration and was still inspired by the daring spirit of first man in space Yuri Gagarin, in the year it celebrated the 50th anniversary of his historic voyage.

But Phobos-Grunt was haunted by the apparent jinx of the Soviet Union and Russia's past botched attempts to explore Mars and its two moons.

The Soviet Union sent up a string of probes but most failed in their missions, at a time when NASA was able to impress the world with the stunning images of Mars from its successful Mariner and Viking probes.

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.

Moscow's last successful planetary missions were the Vega 1 and 2 probes of 1986 in the Soviet era which explored Venus and Halley's Comet.

If all still goes to plan, Phobos-Grunt would reach Mars next year 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.

In a landmark space cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, the probe is also expected to deploy a Chinese satellite, Yinghuo-1, which will go into orbit around Mars and observe the planet itself.

Phobos, which orbits Mars at a radius of just under 10,000 kilometres, is believed to be the closest moon to any planet in the solar system and scientists hope it will reveal secrets about the origins of the planets.

The voyage also comes as the world's space powers are showing renewed interest in the possibility of sending a man to Mars in the next decades, possibly in the 2030s.

© 2011 AFP

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