Russian probe to Mars' moon fails after launch

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) craft was successfully launched by a Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16 am Moscow time today from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It separated from the booster about 11 minutes later and was to fire its engines twice to set on its path to the Red Planet, but it never did.

Russia's Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said neither of the two ignitions worked, probably due to the failure of the craft's orientation system. He said in televised remarks that space engineers have three days to reset the craft's computer programme to make it work before its batteries die.

The mishap is the latest in a series of recent launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the nation's space industries. The Russian space agency said it will establish its own quality inspection teams at rocket factories to tighten oversight over production quality. The USD 170 million Phobos-Grunt would have been Russia's first interplanetary mission since Soviet times. A previous 1996 robotic mission to Mars also ended in failure when the probe crashed in the Pacific following an engine failure.

The Phobos-Grunt originally was set to blast off in October 2009, but its launch was postponed because the craft wasn't ready. The 13.2-metric ton craft is the heaviest interplanetary probe ever, with fuel accounting for most of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin that has specialised in interplanetary vehicles since the dawn of the space era.

The company designed the craft for the failed 1996 launch. Earlier, two of its probes sent to Phobos in 1988 also failed. One was lost a few months after the launch due to an operator's mistake, and contact was lost with its twin when it was orbiting Mars.

If space experts manage to fix the craft, it will reach Mars orbit in September 2012 and the landing on Phobos will happen in February. The return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200 grams of soil from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.

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