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News English News Grunt Mars probe stranded in Earth orbit
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Russia's Mars-bound probe Phobos-Grunt had an almost immediate engine failure after launch, and now the race is on for the space agency to correct its course and get it back on track toward the red planet.

The craft successfully launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 9 November (Moscow time), and separated from its Zenit-2 booster rocket some 11 minutes later. But its engines failed to kick in, and it's now trapped in Earth's orbit.

The Russian space agency says that it now has three days to correct the probe's fault remotely, turn on its engines and break out of Earth's orbit, before the $167 million craft's batteries run dry.

The probe's plan was to journey to Mars, circle the planet for a few months, and then touch down on the Martian moon of Phobos. Once there, the robotic spacecraft would scoop up a couple hundred grams of soil and return the scientific payload to Earth in 2014.

Phobos-Grunt ("grunt" means "ground" or "soil" in Russian) is also carrying China's Yinghuo-1 satellite, which is hitchhiking towards Mars. Plus, The Planetary Society has sent a package of micro-organisms to test how extremeophiles like Tardigrades could survive in the pressures of space.

The mission was supposed to be the heroic comeback for Russia, after two decades of failed missions to Mars.

1988's Phobos 1 lost its way en-route to Mars after a faulty command sequence sent from Earth caused the spacecraft to shut down. Phobos 2 triumphantly reached the red planet and even managed to return 38 images, but contact was lost before it could touch down on the Martian moon.

Russia tried again in 1996 with Mars 96, but it crashed into the ocean shortly after lift-off. Phobos-Grunt, the fourth Mars-bound craft, had issues even before lift off. It was supposed to blast off in October 2009, but the launch was delayed for two years because the craft wasn't ready.

If Russia manages to save Phobos-Grunt in time and get it back on track, it will reach Mars in September 2012 and land on Phobos in February 2013.

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