A team of Russian scientists continued to search for options on Thursday as a scheduled mission to Phobos, a moon of Mars, remains in jeopardy.
The Russian space agency has told reporters that Phobos–Grunt has until December to push off for Mars, leaving scientists with just weeks to find a solution to the problem. Russian space officials are expected to announce plans to address the failure in the coming days, according to The Associated Press.
Russian space agency’s Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars, which was heralded as Russia’s return to space prominence, hit a glitch upon entering low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft’s engine reported failed, leaving the probe stuck in in orbit, where it is likely to fall back to earth. As of this week, Russian scientists were still attempting to make contact with a multimillion dollar space probe, however, a number of scientists expressed little optimism last week. A number of officials have expressed little hope the probe will continue on its mission.
The five billion ruble ($163 million) Phobos-Grunt mission is tasked with collecting dust from Phobos, which Russian scientists say will yield information on the origins of solar system’s planets and help determine is Mars is, or ever was, suited for life. A number of astronomers have suggested that the moon may have harbored life in the early days of the solar system, saying a mission to the rocky outcrop could be the first step towards collecting soil on Mars.
Further complicating matters, the 13-ton craft is fully-laden with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxid — both of which are hazardous. Russian space agency officials say most of the toxic chemicals will burn off during reentry.
The mission is being conducted in coordination with a number of space agencies around the world, including the U.S. and China. The probe is carrying a small payload from the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group, to test the effects of microgravity on tiny organisms. The mission would have provided scientists with the first samples of soil from moon orbiting Mars.
It is unknown whether a software error or hardware glitch is responsible for the failure, but attempts to upload new commands to the on board computers have so far failed to change the situation.
Russia’s last interplanetary flight was in 1988, just three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. That 1988 mission was the second of two Soviet Phobos probes that failed to reach its goal, going silent within 50 meters (165 feet) of the moon’s surface. In 1996, a Russian Mars lander burned in a failed launch, sending the probe bound for the Red Planet crashing into the ocean.