Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft — the country's first bid at interplanetary space exploration in 15 years — made a successful launch yesterday afternoon, but is now reportedly stuck in orbit after losing communication with Earth and failing to fire the thrusters that would have sent it into deep space. So much for kicking the country's Martian curse.
"It has been a tough night for us because we could not detect the spacecraft [after it separated from its booster rocket]," said Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin. "Now we know its coordinates and we found out that the [probe's] engine failed to start...this means that the craft was unable to find its bearings by the stars."
Fortunately, all is not lost. "I would not say it's a failure," explained Popovkin. "It's a non-standard situation, but it is a working situation."
Here's what it boils down to: If yesterday's problems arose due to a hardware malfunction, Russia is liable to continue its decades-long streak of failed Martian missions. On the other hand, if the failure stems from a software malfunction, Russian engineers have a decent shot at salvaging the mission by reprogramming the spacecraft and setting it on course.
But time is of the essence. According to Popovkin, he and his team have just three days to send Phobos-Grunt on its way before its batteries run out. If the craft cannot be salvaged, it will mark the fourth consecutive Mars failure for Russia — one that the mission's lead scientist, Alexander Zakharov, sounds quick to pin on "a lack of experience":
They say there is hope to reset it. Apparently it's a problem with the programming, but there is very little time...I feel grief. It's very sad that this is how it all worked out, but this is a consequence of our lack of people after such a big interval...Many young people worked on this. There is a lack of experience, we are working almost from scratch.
Zakharov, for one, sounds as though he's resigned to another Martian failure. The "young people" of Russia's space program now have under seventy-two hours to prove him wrong.