Engine trouble keeps Mars probe in Earth orbit

Updated: 2011-11-10 07:52

By Xin Dingding (China Daily)

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Hopes linger for Chinese and Russian spacecraft

BEIJING - Scientists are working to rekindle the Russia-China joint Mars probe after the spacecraft failed to enter the intended orbit on day one.

Yinghuo-1, China's first interplanetary spacecraft, had hitched a ride with Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission when it blasted off at 4:16 am on Wednesday Beijing time from the launch center in Kazakhstan.

The Russian spacecraft was scheduled to fly in a low orbit around Earth, then after two ignitions of the sustainer engine it was to shoot off on its designated trajectory to the Red Planet.

But Russia's space agency said that the probe had failed to enter the departure trajectory and remained in the support orbit.

Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, was quoted as saying that mission control lost contact with the probe because its engine failed to start after separation from the main rocket carrier.

"There was neither first nor second ignition," Popovkin said. "Russia's space control systems and similar systems of the United States searched the spacecraft on the orbit. Its fuel tanks have not been thrown off."

He said the mission's controllers have three days to study the data and retarget the program.

Officials with China's space agency said on Wednesday they are still waiting for updates from the Russian side and declined to comment.

Chinese space experts, however, still believed there is hope.

"It cannot be called a failure yet, because the Russian side is now trying to have the probe's engine started," said Pang Zhihao, deputy editor-in-chief of the monthly publication, Space International.

The main target of the Phobos-Grunt unmanned mission is to bring back the first-ever soil sample from Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons.

The Russian probe is planned to reach Mars in 2012 and leave Yinghuo-1 in a Mars orbit before deploying its lander for Phobos in 2013 and return the soil sample back to the Earth in August 2014.

China aimed to use Yinghuo-1 to analyze the planet's magnetic environment and upper atmosphere, among other scientific goals. It has a two-year lifespan, said the China Great Wall Industry Corp.

Before this setback, the Phobos-Grunt mission had been postponed from October 2009 to this year in order to enhance the reliability of the project.

Pang said that exploration efforts of the Red Planet have a high rate of failure.

Apart from this mission, 21 out of 41 detectors sent to Mars since 1960s have ended in failures.

China Daily

(China Daily 11/10/2011 page2)