Failed Russian spacecraft could rain toxic fuel on Earth

MOSCOW — Russian controllers were battling to redirect a space probe that got stuck in a low orbit Wednesday, raising fears that it could crash back to Earth.

The $167 million unmanned Phobos-Ground spacecraft was successfully launched early Wednesday from Baikonur cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan. But when the probe separated from its booster rocket, the engines did not fire to put it on the path to Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons.

“We had a hard night, as for a long time we couldn’t detect the spaceship,” Vladimir Popovkin, who heads the Russian federal space agency, Roskosmos, told journalists Wednesday. “It was established that the propulsion engine failed to work.”

He hoped the malfunction was the result of a programming error, saying that if the cause was equipment failure, “it could in no way be fixed from Earth.”

It was the latest in a series of failures for Russia’s space research program.

In December, three navigation satellites failed to reach orbit and tumbled into the ocean. In April, the space agency lost contact with a military satellite. And in August, the Russian Progress cargo spacecraft crashed after an abortive launch to take supplies to the International Space Station.

Space experts worry that the tons of toxic fuel carried by Phobos-Ground could turn it into one of the most dangerous spacecraft to fall from orbit.

“About seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever,” James Oberg, a NASA veteran who now works as a space consultant, said in an email to The Associated Press. “What was billed as the heaviest interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts to ever fall back to Earth out of control.”

But Oberg told AP it was still possible to regain control of the probe, saying, “Nothing irreversibly bad has happened.”

Space agency officials said they had about two weeks to redirect Phobos-Ground before its power sources ran out. If they succeed, it should reach Mars’ orbit in 2012 and will collect ground samples from Phobos to bring back to Earth. It is Russia’s first interplanetary mission since the Mars-96 probe crashed shortly after launch in 1996.

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