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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian scientists were racing against the clock Wednesday to find a way to fire the engines of an unmanned probe destined to collect surface samples from a moon of Mars, after a post-launch equipment failure left it stuck in Earth orbit.
The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) craft was successfully launched by a Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16 a.m. Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT Tuesday) 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 out on its path to the Red Planet, but it never did.
Russia's Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said neither of the two engine burns 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 program to make it work before its batteries die.
James Oberg, a NASA veteran who now works as a space consultant, said that it's still possible to regain control over the probe.
"With several days of battery power, and with the probe's orbit slowly twisting out of the optimal alignment with the desired path towards Mars, the race is on to regain control, diagnose the potential computer code flaws, and send up emergency rocket engine control commands," Oberg said in an email to The Associated Press. "Depending on the actual root of the failure, this is not an impossible challenge."
He warned, however, that the effort to restore control over the probe is hampered by a limited earth-to-space communications network that forced Russian flight controllers to ask the general public in South America to help locate the craft. Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected that the craft was stuck in Earth orbit.
The mishap is the latest in a series of recent launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of Russia'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 $170 million Phobos-Grunt was Russia's first interplanetary mission since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.
If the controllers fail to bring the Phobos-Grunt back to life, the tons of highly toxic fuel it carries would turn it into the most dangerous manmade object to fall from orbit, Oberg warned.
"About seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he said. "What was billed as the heaviest interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts to ever fall back to Earth out of control, an unenviable record."
The 13.2-metric ton (29,040-pound) craft was described by its makers as the heaviest interplanetary craft ever built, with fuel accounting for a large share of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin that has specialized in interplanetary vehicles since the dawn of the space era.
The company designed the craft for the botched 1996 launch and the two 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 (7 ounces) of dirt from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.
It is arguably the most challenging unmanned interplanetary mission ever. It would require a long series of precision maneuvering for the probe to reach the potato-shaped moon measuring just about 20 kilometers (just over 12 miles) in diameter, land on its crater-dented surface, scrape it for samples and fly back.
Scientists hoped that studies of the Phobos surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe that the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's a piece of debris resulting from Mars' collision with another celestial object.
NPO Lavochkin's chief Viktor Khartov described the current mission as essential to maintain the nation's technological expertise in robotic missions to other planets.
"This is practically the last chance for the people who participated in the previous project to share their experience with the next generation, to preserve the continuity," Khartov said before the launch, according to the Interfax news agency.
China has contributed to the mission by adding a mini-satellite that is to be released when the craft enters an orbit around Mars on its way to Phobos. The 115-kilogram (250-pound) satellite, Yinghuo-1, will become the first Chinese spacecraft to explore Mars, studying the planet during two years in orbit.