Russian launches probe to moon of Mars

Russia launched an unmanned probe on a daring mission to reach Phobos, a moon of Mars, and to fly samples of its soil back to Earth.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) craft was successfully launched by a Zenit-2 booster rocket at 12:16 a.m. Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT Tuesday) from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Russia's Federal Space Agency said the craft separated successfully from the booster about 11 minutes later.

But early Wednesday, the agency said the probe had failed to enter a departure trajectory to shoot off to the Red Planet and remained on a support orbit. The agency's head, Vladimir Popovkin, told the Tass news agency that the spacecraft's sustainer engine failed to work.

"There was neither first or second ignition," he said. "Russia's space control systems and similar systems of the United States searched the spacecraft on the orbit. It's fuel tanks have not been thrown off."

He said such a contingency situation had been foreseen and the mission's controllers have three days to study the telemetry and retarget the program.

The return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200 grams (7 ounces) of soil from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.

The $170 million endeavor would be Russia's first interplanetary mission since Soviet times. A previous 1996 robotic mission to Mars ended in failure when the probe crashed in the Pacific following an engine failure.

The Phobos-Grunt originally was set to blast off in October 2009, but its launch was postponed because the craft wasn't ready.

The 13.2-metric ton (29,040-pound) craft is the heaviest interplanetary probe ever, with fuel accounting for most of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin that has specialized in interplanetary vehicles since the dawn of the space era.

The company designed the craft for the failed 1996 launch, and two of its probes sent to Phobos in 1988 also failed. One was lost a few months after the launch due to an operator's mistake, and contact was lost with its twin when it was orbiting Mars.

The challenges for the Phobos-Grunt are daunting. It will require a long series of precision maneuvering for the probe to reach the potato-shaped moon, land on its surface, scrape it for samples and fly back.

If the mission goes according to plan, the Russian craft will reach Mars orbit in September 2012 and the landing on Phobos will happen in February.

Scientists hope that studies of the Phobos soil will help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe that the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's a piece of debris resulting from Mars' collision with another celestial object.

NPO Lavochkin's chief Viktor Khartov described the current mission as essential to maintain the nation's technological expertise in robotic missions to other planets.

"This is practically the last chance for the people who participated in the previous project to share their experience with the next generation, to preserve the continuity," Khartov said before the launch, according to the Interfax news agency.

China has contributed to the mission by adding a mini-satellite that is to be released when the craft enters an orbit around Mars on its way to Phobos. The 115-kilogram (250-pound) satellite, Yinghuo-1, will become the first Chinese spacecraft to explore Mars, studying the planet during two years in orbit.

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