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Russian probe engines crap out on way to Mars

Phobos-Grunt stuck in orbit around Earth

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Russia's fourth attempt to reach Mars has run into trouble and is now stuck in orbit around Earth.

Phobos-Grunt, which launched successfully last night, managed to make it into orbit, but has failed to fire its engines to get it started on its journey to Mars.

The craft – Фобос-Грунт, or Phobos-Grunt ("grunt" means "soil" in Russian) – lifted off right on schedule at 20:16 GMT last night from the Baidonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, aboard a two-stage Zenit-2SB41.1 booster rocket.

It separated from the booster 11 minutes later, but both engine burns failed to work, according to an Associated Press report.

Russia's Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said on Russian television that the space engineers now have three days to reset the craft's computer program to get the engines going. After that, the batteries will die.

Space consultant James Oberg, formerly of NASA, told AP that the engineers would have to work quickly to get the spaceship back under control.

"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.

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

The limited earth-to-space communications network is also hampering the rescue attempt for the Russians, who have had to ask the general public in South America to help find the ship.

Phobos-Grunt was supposed to arrive at the Red Planet in October next year, orbit the planet for a few months and then land on the Martian moon Phobos to collect pebbles and dust before returning to Earth in 2014.

The craft would also have left some instruments on Phobos, including a mass spectrometer, to send back readings. As well as all that, Phobos-Grunt was carrying a passenger, the Chinese satellite Yinghuo-1, which was hitching a ride to Mars orbit so it could study magnetic and gravity fields, ionosphere and the surface of the planet.

The mission is the first interplanetary one for China and the first for Russia since Soviet Union times.

However, it hasn't gone well so far. The first two attempts managed to make it to the planet, but then suffered critical failures that made them useless and the third crashed into the ocean when its fourth stage failed after liftoff in 1996.

Scientists hope that studying Phobos will answer the question of whether it is an asteroid trapped in Mars' gravity or a piece of debris from a collision between Mars and another celestial body. ®

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