Russian Mars Probe To Fall To Earth Unless Fix Is Found

WATCH: Russia’s first planned interplanetary mission in more than two decades suffered a malfunction shortly after its launch on November 9.


Russia’s ambitious return to deep-space exploration is in limbo as space engineers struggle to salvage an unmanned probe to Mars that is stranded in orbit around the Earth.

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft took off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 9. But once in orbit around the Earth, its propulsion system failed to send the spacecraft on its year-long journey to Mars. It remains stuck in a dangerously low orbit that could eventually send it crashing back to Earth.

​Engineers have been unable to re-establish communication with the spacecraft so far.

The Phobos-Grunt probe is named after Phobos, a moon orbiting Mars. The $170 million spacecraft was built to give insight into the Martian moon’s origin by collecting soil samples from its surface to bring back to Earth for analysis.

The highly complicated mission is the first of its kind in the two decades since the collapse of communism crippled the Soviet space program.

But engineers had complained of unresolved problems in the control and other systems before the launch. It’s not clear whether the current malfunction is with the hardware or software that could be reprogrammed, but space expert Viktor Myasnikov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the probe probably failed for more than one reason.

“There were delays in the construction and changes in the project’s concept,” Myasnikov said, “so I’m not at all surprised problems arose in such an extraordinarily complicated mechanism.”

Two-Week Window

Engineers say they have just two weeks to try to solve the problems before the spacecraft falls back to Earth. But with limited battery power restricting mission control from communicating with the probe for more than several hours a day, hopes for success aren’t high.

The Phobos-Grunt is laden with a highly toxic fuel and a small amount of radioactive cobalt, which experts say doesn’t present a danger. They say it’s impossible to tell how much of the spacecraft would survive a re-entry but that the presence of so much fuel means most of the craft would probably burn up before reaching the ground.

A rocket carrying the Phobos-Grunt on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 9.
The spacecraft is also carrying a Chinese satellite meant to study Mars.

Moscow has sent 16 previous missions to Mars but none has completed its mission. The latest was destroyed during a failed launch in 1996.

The Phobos-Grunt probe’s malfunction is also the latest in a recent string of troubles for the Russian space agency, including the failure of a Soyuz rocket in August. Engineers say they’ve fixed that problem.

The U.S. space agency NASA depends on the Soyuz to send astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station, since the space shuttle program was retired earlier this year. The next Soyuz is scheduled to blast off for the space station on November 13 carrying two Russians and an American.

written by Gregory Feifer, with contributions from RFE/RL’s Russian Service

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