Mars craft stuck in Earth orbit
Published 10/11/2011 | 00:36
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 weeks if engineers cannot coax it back on track.
Space experts are hopeful that the space probe's silent engines can be fired to send it off to Mars, but if not, it will plummet to Earth.
Most US space debris experts think the fuel on board would explode harmlessly in the upper atmosphere and never reach the ground. The Federal Space Agency said the probe's orbit and its power sources could allow it to circle the Earth for about two weeks.
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 US dollar Phobos-Ground craft successfully got into orbit, propelled off the ground by a Zenit-2 booster rocket 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 could not leave Earth's orbit, flying between 129 and 212 miles above the planet. That orbit is already deteriorating, according to American satellite tracking.
The craft was aiming to get ground samples from Phobos, one of Mars's two moons, and return them in an expedition hailed by scientists, who said it may include bits of Mars that may have been trapped on its moon.
Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed.
The Russian rescue effort was being hampered by a limited Earth-to-space communications network. Even before the problem, flight controllers were forced to ask people in South America to scan the sky to see if the engines on the spacecraft had fired.
Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected the craft was stuck in an Earth orbit.