Battle to rescue Russia’s Mars probe

Space scientists are struggling to save Russia’s latest mission to Mars and prevent it becoming their 16th failed probe to the red planet.

Russian artwork for the Phobos-Grunt mission
Russian artwork for the Phobos-Grunt mission Credit: Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency)/IKI

The £100million probe, called Phobos-Grunt, became stranded in orbit around the Earth after a booster that should have fired twice to send in heading into deep space failed to operate. Lift-off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan was successful. But for a few hours, mission control in Moscow lost the probe and had to appeal for help in locating it.

They now have three days to try to salvage the mission, which is thought to have suffered a software glitch, before the probe’s batteries die. Otherwise the spacecraft, which is due to collect a sample from Mars’s larger moon Phobos and bring it back to Earth, will be the latest in a string of Martian disasters for the Russians. Of 16 previous bids to explore the red planet, only one has been a complete success.

NASA has offered Russian space agency Roscosmos help with their network of antennas if requested to send commands to get the probe functioning again properly. Phobos-Grunt is also carrying China’s first probe to Mars, Yinghuo-1. NASA, which has successfully put several probes into orbit around Mars or on the surface, will launch its own latest mission this month, sending a Mini-sized rover called Curiosity to search for signs of life.

Since 1960, Russian scientists have made 17 attempts to explore Mars. Marsnik 1 and Marsnik 2 both failed in 1960 and so did Sputnik 22, Mars 1 and Sputnik 24 in 1962. Their next bid, Zond 2, flew past Mars as planned in 1964 but its radio failed and no data was sent home. In 1969, Kosmos 419 got stuck in Earth orbit. In 1971, Mars 2 went into orbit around Mars but sent back little data and its lander crashed. Its twin Mars 3 did land but the instruments packed up after just 20 seconds.

The Soviets’ only real success came with Mars 5 which arrived in 1974 and send back 60 photos from orbit. Three companion probes failed. Mars 4 and Mars 7 went flying past Mars instead of going into orbit, and Mars 6 landed but suffered a computer fault.

In 1988 and 1989, Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 were both lost on their way to Mars. And in 1996, the nuclear-powered Mars 96 went out of control after launch and crashed in South America. A European probe, Mars Express, was successfully launched atop a Russian rocket in 2003 but its British built Beagle 2 lander was lost, presumed crashed.

NASA have had their share of failed Mars missions but these have been more than balanced by its successes. The irregularly shaped Phobos, larger than Mars’s other moon Deimos, is probably a captured asteroid though there was once the astonishing (and unlikely) suggestion that it could be an alien space station. You’ll find a factfile about Phobos and Deimos here.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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