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.
Vladimir Popovkin, who heads the Russian federal space agency, Roskosmos, was hopeful 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.”
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 7 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.
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.