MOSCOW (AP) - 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 of weeks if engineers can’t coax it back on track.
Space experts were hopeful Wednesday that the space probe’s silent engines can be fired to send it off to Mars. If not, it will plummet to Earth. But most U.S. space debris experts think the fuel on board would explode harmlessly in the upper atmosphere and never reach the ground.
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 Phobos-Ground craft successfully got into orbit, propelled off the ground by a Zenit-2 booster rocket just after midnight Moscow time Wednesday (2016 GMT Tuesday) 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 couldn’t leave Earth’s orbit, flying between 129 and 212 miles above Earth. And that orbit is already deteriorating, according to American satellite tracking.
“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,” NASA chief debris scientist Nicholas Johnson said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s not going to be that immediate.”
The craft was aiming to get ground samples from Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons, and return them in a daring expedition hailed by eager 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 fired.
Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected the craft was stuck in an Earth orbit.
As time went on Wednesday, experts in the United States became more confident that the Russians could still get the probe going, just a day or two later than planned. There were no sightings of an explosion or partial rocket firings, which are good signs, said James Oberg, a NASA veteran who has written books on the Russian space program and who now works as a space consultant.
“I am growing more confident as we realize that the vehicle is healthy; it didn’t blow up,” Oberg said late Wednesday afternoon. “They have a chance of doing a Hubble repair, an Apollo 13, snatching victory out of jaws of defeat kind of thing.”
The hope is that this is just a software problem that can be fixed and uploaded to the probe, said Bruce Betts, program director of the Planetary Society in the United States, a group that has a $500,000 experiment on board.
“There’s a major problem, but it might be recoverable,” Betts said. “The game’s not over yet.”