Australia on alert as Mars probe falls back to earth

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Australia was on alert in the early hours of this morning for debris from the Russian Mars '96 spacecraft, which had become stuck in orbit around Earth after launch, and was expected to re-enter the atmosphere, either to burn up or to crash in the Australian outback, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales.

The six-tonne rocket ran into trouble about 20 minutes on Saturday night after lift-off when its fourth stage failed to ignite.

The failure delivers a huge blow to Moscow's tottering space programme, and is a second calamity in six months for British space scientists, some of whom had experiments on board representing up to 10 years' work. In June, the European Space Agency's Ariane-5 rocket blew up seconds after take-off, destroying another set of British experiments which had taken years to design.

With the $64m craft slowly orbiting the Earth, Russian space agency had a humiliating time last night waiting for it to be pulled back into the atmosphere. The Russians said that they expected all the probe to burn up on re-entry. Initially, there were fears that four small thermoelectric generators, each less than an inch long but containing highly radioactive plutonium, might survive re-entry to land on the Earth.

However, Richard Tremayne-Smith, head of the British National Space Centre (BNSC), said last night: "There's less than a gram of plutonium in total, and the canisters will burn up."

The failure means, though, that Russia is now totally eclipsed as a space power, despite being the first to put a person in space. And many of the Russian scientists on this project were working for no pay.The lack of success makes it unlikely that Russia will try another mission to Mars: of the 11 it has now tried since 1962, eight have failed outright and three sent back the minimum of data.

British scientists were crestfallen. "It is very hard to get to Mars and it's very hard to get your instrument on a spacecraft going to Mars," said David Southwood, professor of physics at Imperial College, London. "It's a tremendous blow to us." Professor Southwood's research group helped build a device to measure magnetic fields around Mars. Three other British research groups also had experiments on board.

The Mars '96 probe ran into difficulties soon after taking off late on Saturday night from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The mission, carrying experiments from 20 countries, had been delayed by two years because of cash shortages. It would have gathered data about when water last flowed on the Red Planet - information that could offer critical clues about whether there was once life there.

Its 60-million-mile journey to Mars, the nearest planet, would have lasted 10 months and yielded a wealth of photographs, samples and other data. In the event, it fizzled out almost the moment it had begun. Its fourth- stage rocket boosters are believed to have failed to ignite, leaving it not only stranded in orbit but out of contact with controllers. "We will carry on looking for it for days," said Konstantin Sukhanov, a flight manager.

The Russians recently also discovered that the second of their two state- of-the-art spy satellites burnt out in the autumn, an event which has forced them to consider leasing a satellite from China, according to Izvestia newspaper.

The Mars spacecraft loss was not a complete surprise to the international space community. Several weeks ago, one of the top scientists on the project, Vasily Moroz, revealed that the Russian Space Agency lacked the funds to carry out vital tests on two of four landing craft that the probe was to have sent to the planet to carry out tests on the Martian atmosphere, and look for traces of ice beneath the ground.

According to one American space specialist, James Oberg, the Russians were rushing to prepare the craft in time to meet a launch "window", which would not recur for more than two years. "They were throwing it together on the launch pad," he said, "Two weeks before launch they were still hooking things on to it."

The pursuit of information about the Red Planet now rests firmly in the hands of the Americans, who this month dispatched a craft to photograph and chart the planet's surface. Next month the US also plans to send a second probe to Mars.