Russia launched early on Wednesday a robotic spacecraft to the Mars moon Phobos in the nation’s first attempt to carry out an interplanetary mission in 15 years.
The two-stage Zenit-2SB launch vehicle carrying the Phobos-Grunt probe lifted off from the Baikonur space center at 00.16 a.m. Moscow time (20:16 GMT on Tuesday).
The ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission is aimed at bringing back soil samples from Phobos in 2014 to pave the way for the exploration of the Red Planet.
The $163-million spacecraft is carrying an array of 20 instruments designed to gather and transmit data from the vicinity of Mars and from the surface of Phobos.
Phobos-Grunt is also carrying several other payloads, including a Chinese sub-probe Yinghuo 1 that will separate from Phobos-Grunt and go into orbit around the Red Planet, as well as a capsule with microbes to study how life forms survive long flights through deep space.
The probe is expected to reach Mars in September 2012 and drop its lander onto Phobos early in 2013.
If everything goes well, it will be the first successful Russian planetary exploration mission, following the loss of the Mars-96 orbiter in a launch failure in 1996.
Last week, Russia brought to a successful end an experiment to simulate a manned flight to Mars.
Six volunteers were locked away for 520 days from sunshine and loved ones in a cramped capsule in a Moscow car park, in an experiment that was intended to find out how human beings could cope with long-duration spaceflights.