The Zenit-2SB rocket carrying the Phobos-Grunt probe

Russian spacecraft to Mars goes awry after engine failure

Russia’s unmanned spacecraft on a mission to Mars is still in Earth’s orbit after an engine failed to fire.

The 5-billion-rouble probe blasted off at 12.16am Moscow time (2016 GMT Tuesday) from the Baikonur launch pad on a Zenit-2SB rocket.

Russia’s space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said an engine failed to fire on the Phobos-Grunt probe after it reached Earth’s orbit putting in doubt its mission to bring back a soil sample from the Martian moon Phobos.

"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," Popovkin was quoted by Interfax as saying at Russia's Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.

In a forum on the mission's official website, Anton Ledkov of the Russian Space Research Institute said there was no telemetry from the craft.

But Popovkin said officials were in contact with the probe, which remained in Earth's orbit, and had three days to set it on course before the batteries run out.

Dust from Phobos, scientists say, could shed light on the genesis of the solar system while data collected in its orbit might help solve enduring mysteries such as whether Earth's neighbour has ever supported life.

The plan is for Phobos-Grunt to reach Mars next year, touch down on the larger of Mars’ two tiny moons in 2013, collect a sample from the surface and fly back to Earth in 2014.

Hitching a ride is China's first interplanetary spacecraft, the tiny 115-kg Yinghuo-1, which is to work in orbit with Phobos-Grunt over a year to study Mars’ atmosphere.

Phobos-Grunt is also carrying vials of Earth bacteria suited to extreme environments, plant seeds and tiny invertebrate animals known as water bears to see if they can survive in space. It is meant to be the first time microbes carried by a spacecraft spend years in space and go beyond the protective bubble of Earth's magnetic field, testing part of a theory that life may have migrated between planets inside meteorites.

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