The spacecraft launched from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan reached Earth’s orbit, but failed to find its bearings by the stars, a procedure it must perform before the onboard computer tells the engines to boost the probe on to Mars.
The spacecraft’s batteries will last for three days, giving Russian officials a brief window in which to communicate with the stricken spacecraft and attempt to send it back on course.
Failure to rescue the probe will be a major blow to the Russian space agency and the latest in a long line of missions that have gone awry en route to the red planet. Moscow faces the further headache of an expensive, fuel-laden lump of space junk that will at some point fall back to Earth.
“The engine did not fire. Neither the first nor the second burn occurred,” the Russian space agency chief, Vladimir Popovkin, told state television. “This means that the craft was unable to find its bearings by the stars.”
The malfunction was met with dismay by mission scientists who hoped to overcome a dismal record that has seen all of the agency’s 16 Mars probes fail either fully or partially since the 1960s.
Even before the launch, Popovkin warned that the mission, the nation’s most ambitious in years, was risky because the probe was built with 90% unproven technology. Others blamed tight budget constraints and a brain drain from the agency following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 for the failure.
“They say there is hope to reset it. Apparently it’s a problem with the programming, but there is very little time,” Alexander Zakharov, the lead mission scientist at 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,” he added.
The mission to bring back a sample of soil, or “grunt” in Russian, from the 17-mile-wide Martian moon was supposed to assert Russia‘s place at the forefront of space exploration.
Should the mission be salvaged, the Russians aim to select a landing spot on Phobos using maps created by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.
The probe would touch down on the Martian moon in February 2013 and use a robotic arm to collect and analyse the soil.
Some rock and soil would be transferred to a small return capsule aboard the Phobos-Grunt probe and blasted back to Earth within a few days of landing. The capsule should arrive home in August 2014.
Scientists hope that studying the soil from the potato-shaped Phobos will reveal how the moon formed and whether it contains large cracks and fissures that would explain its unusually low density.
Hitching a ride on the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is China’s first interplanetary probe, the tiny 115kg Yinghuo-1, which is due to work alongside Phobos-Grunt to study the Martian atmosphere.
The US space advocacy group the Planetary Society has used the Russian mission to carry its Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) that will investigate whether plant seeds, hardy bacteria and tough little creatures called tardigrades, or water-bears, can survive the extreme conditions of spaceflight and so support theories on how life might spread through the cosmos.
Moscow’s last successful missions beyond Earth’s orbit, Vega 1 and 2, visited Venus and Halley’s Comet in the mid-1980s. Russia continues to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, but a series of failed unmanned launches this year has underscored the fragility of its space programme.
Mars, the spacecraft graveyard
• 2011 Russian Phobos-Grunt probe gets stuck in Earth’s orbit, leaving engineers three days to rescue the mission.
• 2003 Britain’s Beagle 2 Mars lander falls silent during touchdown on the red planet.
• 2003 Nasa’s twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, explore the surface of the planet for years. Spirit died in 2010. Opportunity continues work to this day.
•1999 Nasa’s Mars Polar Lander crashes into the planet, probably after an engine malfunction failed to slow the spacecraft’s descent.
• 1998 Nasa’s Mars Climate Orbiter is launched. This disintegrates in the Martian atmosphere after a mixup over metric and imperial units for thrust.
• 1996 The Russian Mars 96 mission is torn apart in Earth’s atmosphere when a rocket booster propels the probe back to Earth.
• 1996 Nasa’s Pathfinder probe lands on Mars and explores the surface with a wheeled rover called Sojourner. The mission lasts three months.
•1992 Nasa’s Mars Observer is lost as it approaches the planet after a suspected fuel explosion.
• 1988 Two Russian spacecraft bound for the Martian moon of Phobos suffer critical failures, though one returns photos of Mars.
• 1973 A Russian mission to fly by and land on Mars achieves only the former as the probe flies straight past the planet.
• This article was amended on 10 November 2011. The original said Nasa’s Mars Climate Orbiter was launched in 1988. This has been corrected.