Image: Phobos-Grunt
AP file
Russian space engineers work on the Phobos-Grunt probe at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in advance of this week's launch. The spacecraft is currently stuck in Earth orbit, and experts worry that it could come crashing down unless Russians can get it back on track.
By
updated 11/9/2011 4:06:46 PM ET 2011-11-09T21:06:46

An equipment failure on a Russian space probe has raised concerns that it could come crashing back to Earth in a couple of weeks unless engineers can put it on its designated path out of orbit.

The spacecraft was headed for one of Mars' two moons when it developed technical problems early Wednesday, Moscow time.

NASA and Defense Department officials are tracking it. If the Phobos-Grunt probe's problem can't be fixed, it will be a couple of weeks before it falls back to Earth, NASA officials said in Washington.

The Russians are trying to get the spacecraft back on course.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg said Phobos-Grunt (Russian for "Phobos-Soil") could become the most dangerous manmade object ever to hit the planet. But experts at the U.S. space agency and other space debris experts are less worried. They believe the fuel will probably explode harmlessly in Earth's upper atmosphere.

NASA chief debris scientist Nicholas Johnson says the spacecraft's orbit is already starting to degrade slightly.

"From the orbits we're seeing from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, it's going to be a couple weeks before it comes in," Johnson said Wednesday afternoon. "It's not going to be that immediate."

The unmanned Phobos-Grunt craft was successfully launched by a Zenit-2 booster rocket just after midnight Moscow time (3:16 p.m. ET Tuesday) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It separated from the booster about 11 minutes later and was supposed to fire its engines twice to set out on its path toward Mars, but never did.

The $170 million mission is aimed at getting ground samples from Phobos, one of Mars' two moons, and bringing them back to Earth.

Latest in a string of failures
Wednesday's mishap was the latest in a series of recent Russian failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country's space industries.

Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said neither of the two engine burns worked, probably because the craft's orientation system failed. He said engineers have three days to reset and fix the spacecraft's computer program before its batteries die — but the space agency later said that the probe's orbit and its power sources could allow it to circle the Earth for about two weeks.

Image: Phobos-Grunt launch
Oleg Urusov  /  AP
The Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Grunt ("Phobos-Soil") craft blasts off from its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early Wednesday.

Russian news agencies cited space experts who offered widely varying estimates of how long the craft could stay in orbit before crashing down — from five days to one month.

Oberg, a NASA veteran who has written books on the Russian space program and who now works as a space consultant, said it's still possible to regain control over the probe.

"This is not an impossible challenge," Oberg said in an email to The Associated Press. "Nothing irreversibly bad has happened, the full propellant load is still available, and short-term 'stay healthy' maneuvers can be performed" like deploying the craft's solar panels to boost its power.

He warned, however, that if controllers failed to bring the Phobos-Ground back to life, the tons of highly toxic fuel it carries could turn it into the most dangerous spacecraft ever to fall from orbit.

"About seven tons of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he said. "What was billed as the heaviest interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts to ever fall back to Earth out of control."

Oberg said such a crash could cause significantly more damage than the Russian Mars-96 probe, which crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1996; or the USA-193 spy satellite that was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile in 2008 to prevent it from splashing its toxic fuel.

Later Wednesday, Oberg said he was "growing more confident as we realize that the vehicle is healthy; it didn't blow up."

"They have a chance of doing a Hubble repair, an Apollo 13, 'snatching victory out of jaws of defeat' kind of thing," he said.

Limited communication
The Russian rescue effort Wednesday was being hampered by a limited earth-to-space communications network that already forced flight controllers to ask people in South America to help find the spacecraft. Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected the craft was stuck in an Earth orbit.

Phobos-Grunt was Russia's first interplanetary mission since Mars-96, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.

The spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 English tons), with fuel accounting for a large share of its weight. It was manufactured by the Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin, which specializes in interplanetary vehicles.

Data that Russia shared with NASA shows that about 11 metric tons of the spacecraft is fuel, Johnson said. The key is whether that fuel remains in liquid form or freezes. If it's liquid it would harmlessly blow up about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above ground, Johnson said. But if frozen, it could fall to Earth, posing more of a hazard.

Most U.S. space debris experts believe it will likely stay liquid.

"We've had much larger objects than this come down and not have a problem," said William Ailor of the Aerospace Corp.'s Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies.

Misfortune on the way to Mars
NPO Lavochkin also designed the craft for Russia's botched 1996 launch and the two probes sent to Phobos in 1988, which 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 Russian space agency responded to the failures by promising to establish its own quality inspection teams at rocket factories to tighten production oversight.

In contrast with the failures that dogged Soviet and Russian efforts to explore Mars, several NASA landers and rovers, including Spirit and Opportunity, have successfully studied the Red Planet.

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If Russian space experts manage to fix the Phobos-Grunt, it should reach Mars orbit in September 2012 and land on Phobos in February 2013. The return vehicle is expected to carry up to 200 grams (7 ounces) of ground samples from Phobos back to Earth in August 2014.

Phobos-Grunt's flight plan is arguably the most challenging unmanned interplanetary mission ever. It requires a long series of precision maneuvers for the probe to reach the potato-shaped moon measuring just 20 kilometers (over 12 miles) in diameter, land on its cratered surface, scrape it for samples and fly back.

Scientists hoped that studies of Phobos' surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe Phobos is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

China 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, was due to become the first Chinese spacecraft to explore Mars, studying the planet during two years in orbit.

"If this had worked it would be a fantastic mission," said Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, who has worked on several successful and failed Mars probes. "It is a reminder, if we needed one, that space exploration is hard and Mars missions are tricky."

NASA has its own Mars mission ahead: A car-sized rover called Curiosity is set to launch Nov. 25 from Florida and touch down on the Martian surface next summer.

AP science writer Seth Borenstein contributed from Washington. This report also was supplemented by msnbc.com.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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