An engine failed to fire on the Phobos-Grunt probe, Interfax quoted the Russian space agency chief, Vladimir Popovkin, as saying. The craft was intended to bring back a soil sample.
“The engine did not fire, neither the first nor the second burn occurred. This means that the craft was unable to find its bearings by the stars,” Popovkin said at Russia’s Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.
In a forum on the mission’s official website, Anton Ledkov of the Russian Space Research Institute said there were no signals from the craft. But Popovkin said officials were in contact with the probe, which remained in Earth’s orbit, and they had three days to set it on course before its batteries would run out.
Russia’s space agency was scaled back because of budget constraints and a brain drain following the 1991 Soviet collapse and has suffered a series of setbacks this year. “They say there is hope to reset it; apparently it’s a problem with the programming but there is very little time,” the lead mission scientist, Alexander Zakharov of the Space Research Institute, told Reuters. “I feel grief. It’s very sad that this is how it all worked out but this is a consequence of our lack of people after such a big interval … Many young people worked on this. There is a lack of experience, we are working almost from scratch.”
The probe costing 5bn roubles (£103m/$163m) blasted off just after midnight Moscow time from the Baikonur launch pad on a Zenit-2SB rocket on a three-year return trip to Phobos.
If successful it would be the first Soviet or Russian deep-space probe to Mars to complete its mission. US rovers have logged hundreds of hours on Mars, India and China have sent probes to Earth’s moon and Japan has visited an asteroid and brought back samples.
Russian scientists have dreamed of probing the Red Planet’s potato-shaped satellite Phobos, a mere 13 miles (22km) wide, since the 1960s heyday of pioneering Soviet forays into space.
But two Phobos missions sent up in 1988 failed, one going silent within metres of the surface. In 1996 another unmanned Russian craft bound for Mars broke up in the atmosphere after a botched launch.
“We have always been very unlucky with Mars,” Zakharov said.
Moscow’s last successful missions beyond Earth orbit, Vega 1 and 2, probed Venus and Halley’s Comet in the mid-1980s.
Russia continues to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station but a series of unmanned launches this year have failed.
Scientist say dust from Phobos could shed light on the genesis of the solar system while data collected in its orbit might help solve enduring mysteries such as whether Earth’s neighbour has ever supported life.
The plan is for Phobos-Grunt to reach Mars next year, touch down on the larger of Mars’s two tiny moons in 2013, collect a sample from the surface and fly back to Earth in 2014.
Hitching a ride is China’s first interplanetary spacecraft, the tiny 115kg Yinghuo-1that is to work in orbit with Phobos-Grunt over a year to study Mars’s atmosphere.
Phobos-Grunt is also carrying vials of Earth bacteria suited to extreme environments, plant seeds and tiny invertebrate animals known as water bears to see if they can survive in space and test a theory that life may have migrated between planets inside meteorites.