Russian Mars Probe Stuck in Earth Orbit

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BRUSSELS — The ambitious Russian Phobos-Grunt mission intended to return samples from a Mars moon to Earth has failed to ignite its on-board engines and is stuck in Earth orbit, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, announced Nov. 9.

In a statement, Roscosmos said it expects the spacecraft’s orbit to carry it back into radio contact with ground controllers late Nov. 9 Moscow time, at which point the agency will try to “re-enable the main engines,” Roscosmos said.

The spacecraft, which is years behind schedule, was successfully launched Nov. 8 aboard a Zenit-2SB rocket from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. According to the Roscosmos statement, the spacecraft’s separation from the rocket, and the drop-off point, were both within specifications.

But the spacecraft’s on-board engines, which are designed to give it the energy needed to escape Earth orbit, did not function for reasons unknown, Roscosmos said. Also stuck in Earth orbit is a Chinese-built Mars orbiter that is piggybacking on the Russian craft.

It remained unclear exactly how many days Roscosmos has to try to recover the use of the engines before the mission will be declared lost. Roscosmos’ statement suggested it could continue working the issue for two weeks, but Russian press reports of a press briefing by Roscosmos said a solution must be found within 72 hours or the satellite’s on-board batteries could fail, ending the mission.