A Russian probe intended to travel to the Martian moon Phobos and collect samples has run into difficulties almost immediately after launch. The Phobos-Grunt probe’s engine failed to fire, leaving engineers with just three days to fix what appears to be a software problem before the probe runs out of battery power in Earth’s orbit.
Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Russia’s space agency, told reporters that the problems developed shortly after the mission’s lift-off from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan. The probe, which cost 5bn roubles (£103m/$163m) was on a Zenit-2SB rocket and its three year mission is intended to be the first deep space Russian probe. Only the US has successfully sent missions to Mars and its moons in the past.
This is the latest setback for the Russian space program, and – like the US – Russia is finding its missions to Mars are particularly difficult to get right. In the late 80s two earlier Phobos missions failed, and another missions failed in 1996. It has been around two decades since Russia’s last major missions beyond Earth’s orbit, when the Vega 1 and 2 probes explored Venus and Halley’s Comet.