MOSCOW (AP) — As Russia’s space agency struggled Thursday to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth’s orbit, some experts said the chances of saving the $170 million craft looked slim.
Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said efforts to communicate with the unmanned Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) spacecraft hadn’t brought any results yet. The probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.
The Phobos-Grunt was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Kuznetsov said controllers on Thursday will continue attempts to fix the probe’s engines to steer it to its path to one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos.
Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin, said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed. Other space experts suggested that the craft’s computer failure was a likely cause.
If a software flaw was the problem, scientists can likely fix it by sending new commands. Some experts think, however, that the failure was rooted in hardware and will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fix.
“I think we have lost the Phobos-Grunt,” Vladimir Uvarov, a former top space expert at the Russian Defense Ministry, said in an interview published Thursday in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “It looks like a serious flaw. The past experience shows that efforts to make the engines work will likely fail.”
Complicating the recovery efforts, the space agency only has a few hours a day to reach the probe due to Russia’s limited earth-to-space communications network. Kuznetsov said new attempts to contact the craft will be made Thursday evening.
The spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), and most of that weight, about 11 metric tons (12 tons), is highly toxic fuel.
Most experts believe the fuel will likely stay liquid if the probe comes down and would harmlessly blow up about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above ground, but some fear it may freeze, survive the fiery reentry and spill on impact.