Russian probe fails to take planned course to Mars

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Russia's Phobos-Grunt space probe has failed to take its planned trajectory towards Mars and is stuck in an Earth orbit, the space agency said, adding it now had three days to try to fix the problem.

"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 Phobos-Grunt probe blasted-off just after midnight Moscow time (2016 GMT Tuesday) from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, in its first planetary mission since the 1996 Mars-96 probe which crashed after launch.

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 launch itself went smoothly but the craft then failed to leave Earth's orbit on its journey to Mars, a manoeuvre that had been planned to take place around five hours after blast-off.

"It looks like the engine system has not worked," Popovkin said. "It means that it did not determine orientation on stars."

The probe continues to orbit Earth and experts have three days to try to reprogramme it and direct it toward the red planet.

The project Phobos-Grunt is of huge importance for the Russian programme as the country tries to reemerge as a space superpower with planetary missions capable of rivalling those of NASA.

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

© 2011 AFP

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