Russian Mars probe veers off course after launch

A Russian Mars probe, its first interplanetary mission in 15 years, failed to take the correct course after launch, the Russian space agency has reported.

The engine on the Phobos-Grunt probe failed to fire when the Zenit 2 spacecraft reached Earth orbit, some 33 minutes after launching at 12.16am Moscow time.

However, it remains in Earth orbit, and scientists have three days to get it on course before the probe’s battery power dies.

“They say there is hope to reset it, apparently it’s a problem with the programing but there is very little time,” lead mission scientist Alexander Zakharov of the Space Research Institute told Reuters.

Phobos-Grunt is designed to capture a soil sample from the Martian moon Phobos, reaching it next September and returning in 2014. It’s been theorized that Phobos may be a captured asteroid.

Phobos-Grunt is carrying a Planetary Society experiment aiming to extablish whether microorganisms can survive such a journey in space, and which may cast light on whether microbes could have reached Earth by hitching a ride on a meteorite.

It’s also carrying China’s first interplanetary probe, Yinghuo-1, which was to study the Martian atmosphere.

Martian missions have been going badly wrong for Russia for decades. Two missions failed in 1988, and another in 1996. Indeed, not one of the country’s 16 missions to the Mars has been fully successful.

In August, a Russian freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) disintegrated over Siberia, although Russia has since successfully launched another, which reached the ISS last week.