Mars probe falls short of orbit but hope lives

A Russian probe carrying China’s first Mars satellite Yinghuo-1 failed to reach its intended orbit after its launch yesterday, the top official of the Russian space program said.

The problem occurred after the Phobos-Grunt probe separated from the Zenit-2SB launch vehicle but failed to use its own booster to reach the designated orbit, said Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos.

Popovkin said neither of the two engine burns worked, probably due to the failure of the craft’s orientation system. But he said officials were in contact with the probe, which remained in Earth’s orbit, and had three days to reset the craft’s computer program to set it on course before the batteries run out.

“The contingency situation emerged, but it is an operational situation. We foresaw it. Now we are studying the telemetry,” Popovkin said.

Challenging test

The Phobos-Grunt craft carrying China’s Yinghuo-1 satellite was successfully launched by a Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16am Moscow time yesterday from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It separated from the booster about 11 minutes later and was to fire its own engines twice to set out on its path to the Red Planet, but it never did.

The main target of the unmanned mission is to bring back the first ever soil sample from Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons. The probe is planned to reach Mars in 2012, then deploy its lander for Phobos in 2013 and return the soil sample back to the Earth in August 2014. The mission would also collect bacteria samples for two Russian and one US biological experiments, The Associated Press reported.

It is arguably the most challenging unmanned interplanetary mission ever, the AP said. It would require a long series of precision maneuvering for the probe to reach the potato-shaped moon measuring only about 20 kilometers in diameter, land on its crater-dented surface, scrape it for samples and fly back.

Secrets sought

Scientists hope studies of the Phobos surface can help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.

In the meantime, the Yinghuo will go into orbit around Mars and observe the planet itself. The Chinese probe, which would not land on Mars nor return to the Earth, is expected to stay in space and communicate with the ground control directly via satellites.

The Chinese probe was designed for a two-year life to discover why water disappeared from Mars and shed light on other environmental changes on the planet.

James Oberg, a NASA veteran and space consultant, said 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 told  the AP.

But he warned that the effort to restore control over the probe is hampered by a limited earth-to-space communications network.