Russia Hunts for Missing Mars probe

Russia made desperate efforts on Thursday to re-establish contact with a pioneering Mars probe that now hangs in a low Earth orbit and could potentially crash back down in a matter of days.

The unmanned Phobos-Grunt spacecraft failed to find the right course to the Red Planet and its moon Phobos after taking off from a space centre Russia leases in Kazakhstan early Wednesday.

The setback extended Russia's year-long streak of space mishaps and dimmed the once-vaunted program's hopes of sending a manned mission to Mars some time in the next 25 years.

Russia's Roscosmos space agency said late Wednesday that it would only be able to receive new data from the probe once it spins into the right position by Thursday morning.

A source at the agency said it was imperative to quickly raise the craft into a higher orbit from which it could receive more detailed commands that could set it on its course.

"On this orbit, we can only establish one-way communications -- we can only receive telemetry data from Phobos-Grunt," the unnamed source told the Interfax news agency.

The source did not explain how Roscosmos intended to lift the craft and one Russian space official had earlier said that success "would be a miracle".

"Based on my experience, you cannot make the upper-stage work on a second attempt," the armed forces' former chief space adviser Vladimir Uvarov told Interfax on Thursday.

Russia's main concern now is that the 13.5 tons system -- also equipped with the Chinese Yinghuo-1 satellite it was supposed to place around Mars -- and its highly toxic fuel could crash back to Earth.

The space agency said it had a window of two weeks to reprogram the probe while it clings on to its current orbit. But the agency's chief Vladimir Popovkin said the system's batteries could only last three days.

The Phobos-Grunt was supposed to reach Mars next year before deploying its lander for the mysterious Mars moon Phobos in 2013. The original plan was to have the probe return safely to Earth with soil samples in August 2014.

The mishap caps an inglorious list for Russia's space program on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight into space.

Three navigation satellites plunged into the sea after a failed launch in December and Russia has since lost new military and telecommunications satellites upon launch.

The last big space crash occurred in August when a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station failed to reach orbit -- a frightening failure that some newspapers said could now be repeated again.

"Russia has sown fear," the popular Moskovsky Komsomolets broadsheet said in reference to the planet's Greek name Phobos.

"The Mars mission's failure could mean that we lose space as a field of scientific research," the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily added.

Source: Agence France Presse

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