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After Glitch, Russian Spacecraft Destined For Mars Is Stuck In Earth's Orbit

Russia and the former Soviet Union haven't had much luck when it comes to missions to the red planet. On Tuesday, it launched a probe destined for Mars. It was supposed to land on Phobos, one of the planet's moons, scoop up some rocks and return home with its specimens.

Instead, the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft launched successfully into orbit, but then its boosters failed to ignite, so for now, it's stuck orbiting our planet.

The Washington Post reports that since 1960, Russia and Soviet Union launched "18 unmanned missions to Mars. Sixteen failed completely, while two returned data from the planet only briefly."

RIA Novosti, the state's international news agency, reports that Vladimir Popvkin, the director of the Russian Federal Space Agency, said they had a tough night. At one point, he said, they could not find the $163-million spacecraft. RIA Novosti adds:

"It is a complex trajectory, and the on-board computers could have simply failed to send a "switch on" command to the engine," Popovkin said, adding that it is an emergency situation, which has been anticipated and could be corrected.

"We will attempt to reboot the program. The spacecraft is currently on a support orbit, the fuel tanks have not been jettisoned, and the fuel has not been spent," he said.

According to Popovkin, the technicians have three days to start the on-board engine and put the probe on the designated trajectory before the batteries run out.

Space.com reports that if Phobos-Grunt can't be saved, it would be the fourth-straight Mars failure for Russia.

"The nation's Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 spacecraft, which launched in July 1988, suffered critical failures before their missions were complete," Space.com says. "And the Mars 96 probe crashed into the Pacific Ocean shortly after liftoff in November 1996."

Also, if the issues are not solved, it would leave a spacecraft full of fuel orbiting Earth and eventually crashing into the atmosphere. The prospect, reports The Washington Post, is not pretty:

Russian engineers are now focused on a problem closer to Earth. If they can't light the Phobos-Grunt rocket, the huge spacecraft will eventually crash to the ground.

"If it comes in, it's going to be a nightmare," [James Oberg, a retired space shuttle engineer] said. "It will probably be the most toxic satellite ever. It's got at least five tons of toxic fuel aboard." The craft carries tanks of hydrazine and nitrogen tetraoxide fuel. Both are "nasty substances," Oberg said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.