Russian Rocket to Mars Stuck in Earth’s Orbit

Russia hasn’t launched a major science exploration mission past earth’s orbit since 1996.  On Wednesday, they successfully launched their newest spacecraft, headed for Phobos–one of Mars’ moons.  The probe would land on Phobos, take samples of the surface, and return it back to earth.  However, after some tense moments after the rocket first reached earth’s orbit then lost contact with Russia’s space agency, they were finally able to determine that the second stage of the rocket never fired, which leaves the probe, at this point, stuck in earth’s orbit.

For Russia’s space agency, which has struggled with a list of rocket failures and other problems, this is one more setback they don’t need.  And to make matters worse, Phobos-Ground (the name of their probe) is loaded with 7-12 tons of highly toxic rocket fuel (nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine), which worries some experts, especially if the rocket cannot be fixed and the entire mission falls back to earth.  At this point the probe has already degraded somewhat in orbit, but the Russian space agency is hoping it is a software problem which might be fixable.  However, they only have a 2-week window to get the engine to start or they will lose the correct trajectory to get to Phobos.  NASA experts say they’re ready to help in case they’re needed.

Cross your fingers! (oh yeah, and don’t eat the snow if the rocket fuel makes it to our atmosphere!)

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~ by alanotte on November 10, 2011.

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