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The Zenit-2SB rocket, carrying the Phobos-Grunt craft, blasts off from its launch pad at the cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, overnight. Oleg Urusov/AP
Mission to Mars

Russia’s race against time to save Mars moon probe

Russian spacecraft engineers have three days to reset the onboard computers of a probe bound for Mars, which is stuck in orbit.

RUSSIAN SCIENTISTS are facing a race against time to find a way of firing the engines of an unmanned probe to Mars – after equipment failure shortly after launch left it stuck in Earth orbit.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) craft, destined to collect soil samples from a moon of Mars, was launched overnight by a Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16 am Moscow time (8:16pm Irish time) from Kazakhstan.

It separated from the booster about 11 minutes later, and was to fire its engines twice to set out on its path to the Red Planet – but it never did.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said neither of the two engine burns had worked, probably due to the failure of the craft’s orientation system.

In televised remarks, he added that space engineers have three days to reset the craft’s computer program to make it work before its batteries die.

James Oberg, a NASA veteran who now works as a space consultant, said that it’s still possible to regain control over the probe.

“With several days of battery power, and with the probe’s orbit slowly twisting out of the optimal alignment with the desired path towards Mars, the race is on to regain control, diagnose the potential computer code flaws, and send up emergency rocket engine control commands,” Oberg said in an email to AP.

“Depending on the actual root of the failure, this is not an impossible challenge.”

He warned, however, that the effort to restore control over the probe is hampered by a limited earth-to-space communications network that forced Russian flight controllers to ask the general public in South America to help locate the craft.

Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected that the craft was stuck in Earth orbit.

The mishap is the latest in a series of recent launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of Russia’s space industries. The Russian space agency said it will establish its own quality inspection teams at rocket factories to tighten oversight over production quality.

The $170 million Phobos-Grunt would have been Russia’s first interplanetary mission since Soviet times. A previous 1996 robotic mission to Mars also ended in failure when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.

The Phobos-Grunt originally was set to blast off in October 2009, but its launch was postponed because the craft wasn’t ready.

The 13.2-tonne craft is the heaviest interplanetary probe ever, with fuel accounting for most of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin, which has specialised in interplanetary vehicles since the dawn of the space era.

The company designed the craft for the failed 1996 launch. Earlier, two of its probes sent to Phobos in 1988 also failed. One was lost a few months after the launch due to an operator’s mistake, and contact was lost with its twin when it was orbiting Mars.

If space experts manage to fix the craft, it will reach Mars orbit in September 2012 and the landing on Phobos will happen in February. The return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200g of soil from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.

Scientists hoped that studies of the Phobos soil could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.

Video, photos: Simulated mission to Mars ends after 520 days of isolation >

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Associated Foreign Press
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