A Russian space probe to a Mars moon launched early on Wednesday is stuck in the Earth's orbit after its engines failed to fire.
After the booster rocket put the spacecraft on a support orbit around the Earth, the probe's own engines were programmed to get started to put it on a trajectory to Mars, but they did not.
The Russian space agency said it may still be possible to put the probe back on track.
“Not a failure”
“I would not say it's a failure, it's a non-standard situation, but it is a working situation,” said Vladimir Popovkin, Russian space agency head.
According to Mr. Popovkin, the craft failed to fire its engines probably because it was unable to find its bearings by the stars. “We will attempt to reboot the programme. The fuel tanks have not been jettisoned, and the fuel has not been spent.”
The ground control has three days to start the on-board engine before the batteries run out.
The project, named Phobos-Grunt that means “soil from Phobos” after one of Mars' two moons, is dubbed the most challenging inter-planetary mission so far. It involves sophisticated manoeuvring to approach Phobos from a Mars orbit, soft-land on the surface of 22-km wide Phobos, collect samples of its soil and return to the Earth in 2014.
Nobody has yet attempted to bring rock samples from the moon of a planet. Scientists hope the mission could help solve the mystery of the origin of Phobos and the solar system.
Phobos-Grunt is carrying a Chinese mini-satellite that is to study Mars for two years in its orbit. The spacecraft has onboard a U.S. experiment with bacteria, plant seeds and microscopic invertebrates to find out whether life could have migrated between planets. The French and German space agencies also have provided instrumentation for the mission.
Russia had sent several probes to Mars in the past, but none reached its goal. The last attempt was mounted five years ago, when the Mars-96 spacecraft failed to reach even its support orbit and fell back to the Earth.