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

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The Independent Online

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.