A wrong turn en route to the red planet: Mars probe gets stuck in orbit

Scientists have just three days to fix the problem before the craft's batteries run out

Moscow

Russian scientists were working against the clock last night to save the country's first Mars mission for over a decade after an engine failure left the spacecraft stranded in orbit above Earth.

Phobos-Grunt, which is supposed to be destined for the Mars moon of Phobos, blasted off on from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan late on Tuesday night, but after reaching orbit and separating successfully from its Zenit launch vehicle, disaster struck and an engine failure left the craft trapped orbiting Earth, rather than the Red Planet's moon.

"Neither the first nor the second engine fired. That meant it was unable to orientate itself with the stars," Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popotkin told journalists at Baikonur.

The Russian space agency said in a statement yesterday that it had no more than two weeks to reboot the spacecraft's systems in order to allow the engines to conduct the two-stage manoeuvre out of earth's orbit and on to a trajectory to Mars.

Earlier Mr Popotkin had suggested scientist had just three days to fix the problem before the unmanned craft's batteries run out.

With the craft stuck in a relatively low orbit, technicians at Baikonur were last night suffering an agonising wait to find out exactly what has gone wrong. "It will come into the zone of visibility from Baikonur at 11 pm Moscow time," the agency said in statement yesterday.

Only then will scientists be able to get the data they need to identify the problem and write new software to transmit to the probe and, hopefully, put the engines back on course.

"We'll try to manoeuvre as soon as possible, but rushing this thing is not going to help – one mistake and we could lose it," a source at the agency told Russia's Interfax news agency. But if it turns out the trouble is a hardware problem – such as a broken or missing part – the mission is doomed no matter what they do, he added.

Phobos-Grunt is Russia's first mission to Mars since a failed 1996 launch, and its three-year mission to recover soil samples from Phobos marks the country's return to deep-space missions.

It is also carrying vials of bacteria known to survive in extreme conditions to see how they fare in space, and tiny Chinese mini-satellite Yinghuo-1, which it will release into orbit around Mars itself.

There has been no dedicated mission to Phobos since the Soviet Union's partially successful Phobos 2 mission in 1988. Then the spaceship entered orbit around the moon and sent back several photographs, but contact was lost as it approached the surface.

The latest setback has reawakened jokes about the "Mars Curse", a reference to the high failure rate that has plagued missions to the Red Planet since they began in 1960.

Victims of the curse include the UK's Beagle 2 Mars Lander, which disappeared as it entered the Martian atmosphere in 2003, and Nasa's Mars Polar Lander, which crash-landed on the planet in 1999.

Of 16 spacecraft the Soviet Union sent to Mars only five have reached their destination.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss