China's first Mars probe is stuck in Earth orbit along with Russia's Phobos-Grunt space-craft, which was sent into space Wednesday but failed to start its engine, leaving engineers with only three days to save the $161 million project.
"The engine did not fire. Neither the first nor the second burn occurred. This means that the craft was unable to find its bearings by the stars," Vladi-mir Popovkin, head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, said at a press conference Wednesday at Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cos-modrome.
After the separation from its carrier, Phobos-Grunt was scheduled to fly in a low Earth orbit, and after two ignitions of the sustainer engine, was sup-posed to fly to Mars.
According to Popovkin, en-gineers were in contact with the probe, which remained in Earth's orbit, and had three days left to reset it on the right course before its battery dies.
"The contingency situation emerged, but it is an operation-al situation. We foresaw it. Now we are studying the telemetry," Popovkin said, adding that the cause of the incident might be that "the flight control system failed to switch from the sun to computing sensors."
Pang Zhihao, a researcher of the China Academy of Space Technology, told the Global Times that there is still a chance of saving the Phobos-Grunt as Popovkin hinted the malfunc-tion was due to software instead of hardware.
James Oberg, a NASA vet-eran who now works as a space consultant, told the AP, "With several days of battery power, and with the probe's orbit slowly twisting out of the optimal
alignment with the desired path toward Mars, the race is on to regain control, diagnose the poten-tial computer code flaws, and send up emergency rocket engine control commands."
Oberg warned, however, that the effort to re-store control over the probe is hampered by a limited Earth-to-space communications network that forced Russian flight controllers to ask the general public in South America to help locate the craft.
Amateur astronomers were the first to spot the trouble when they detected the craft was stuck in Earth orbit, the AP reported.
Drifting along with the Phobos-Grunt is the tiny 115 kilogram Yinghuo-1, China's first Mars probe, which is hitching a ride on the mission.
The original plan was for Phobos-Grunt to reach Mars next year, touch down on the larger of Mars' two tiny moons, Phobos, in 2013, collect a sample from the surface and fly back to Earth in 2014.
The Yinghuo-1 would be released in orbit around Mars and carry out studies on the atmo-sphere and environment of the red planet, but the spacecraft would not land on Mars nor return to Earth.
Analysts told Reuters that dust from Phobos could shed light on the genesis of the solar sys-tem, and that data collected on the voyage might help solve enduring mysteries such as whether Earth's neighbor has ever supported life.
Phobos-Grunt is also carrying vials of Earth bacteria suited to extreme environments, plant seeds and tiny invertebrate animals known as wa-ter bears, to see if they can survive in space.
The Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 were origi-nally supposed to be launched in October 2009, but was postponed due to some reliability prob-lems occurred on the Russian probe.
As Mars and the Earth reach a position that offers the best trajectory between the two plan-ets every 26 months, the launch was pulled off to this November.
Chen Changya, a vice general designer of the Yinghuo-1, told the Global Times that China sought help from the Russians for its Mars mis-sion because it lacks high power ground stations that can send a signal strong enough to reach the red planet.
The distance between Mars and the Earth can be as far as 400 million kilometers, which means that the receiver on the probe must be very sensi-tive with a ground station equipped with highly powerful transmitters, Chen said.
"With the Long March series rockets, China can send spacecraft into Mars orbit, but it does not have a suitable ground station for communi-cation. China is building such a station, but the Yinghuo-1 was planned to be directed by Russian ground control," he added.
China has revealed plans to send its own Mars probe in 2013.
If the Phobos-Grunt cannot be revived, it would be another blow to the Russian space in-dustry, which was crimped by budget constraints and a brain drain following the 1991 Soviet col-lapse and has suffered a humiliating series of set-backs this year.
Xu Wen and agencies contributed to this story