MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian spacecraft on its way to Mars with 12 tons of toxic fuel is stuck circling the wrong planet: ours. And it could come crashing back to Earth in a couple of weeks if engineers can't coax it back on track.
Space experts were hopeful Wednesday that the space probe's silent engines can be fired to send it off to Mars. If not, it will plummet to Earth. But most U.S. space debris experts think the fuel on board would explode harmlessly in the upper atmosphere and never reach the ground.
The launch mishap was the latest in a series of recent Russian failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country's space industries.
The unmanned $170 million Phobos-Ground craft successfully got into orbit, propelled off the ground by a Zenit-2 booster rocket just after midnight Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT Tuesday) from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After separating from its booster, 11 minutes later, it was supposed to fire its engines twice and head to Mars.
Neither engine fired. So the spacecraft couldn't leave Earth's orbit, flying between 129 and 212 miles above Earth. And that orbit is already deteriorating, according to American satellite tracking.
This very ambitious mission is supposed to touch down on Phobos and return soil samples to Earth. Russian Mars probes have been jinxed throughout the space age...they ought to stick with Venus. I hope they can salvage this probe.
Here's hoping that NASA's Curiosity launch (just over 2 weeks away) fares better. I've been following Curiosity on Facebook for so long that I feel really invested in this mission. For an idea of the stakes involved, compare Curiosity's $2.3 billion price tag with the Russian mission's $170 million.