Has 'Mars curse' hit a 19th Russian space probe?

Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is languishing in Earth Orbit – scientists have three days to fix it

LAST UPDATED AT 15:39 ON Wed 9 Nov 2011

A RUSSIAN space probe is in danger of becoming the country's 19th mission to Mars to fail. The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft launched yesterday and went into orbit around the Earth. Two engines should have then fired-up to propel the probe to Mars, but they failed.

Russian scientists say they have three days to solve the problem before the probe runs out of energy, according to the BBC.

Should scientists manage to get their probe back on track, it is hoped that it will reach Mars by September 2012 and then land on the planet's 27km-wide potato-shaped moon, Phobos, in February 2013. The craft is then supposed to collect soil, analyse some of it in situ, and send a small sample back to Earth by August 2014.

It was a hugely ambitious mission, but the reality is that Russia – and previously the Soviet Union – has an appalling record in Mars exploration. Phobos-Grunt is Russia's 19th mission to Mars. All have failed to some degree, with only seven even making it to the red planet.

The so-called 'Mars curse' is a well-known phenomenon and although it has taken a particularly heavy toll on Russian spacecraft, it has also claimed seven Nasa missions.  

Phobos-Grunt might also mark China's first taste of the Mars curse. Its Yinghuo-1 orbiter is taking a piggy-back on the Russian probe and was supposed to have studied the Martian atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field.

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.

Read next

Astronauts back from 17 months 'on Mars'