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Failed Russian space mission shows difficulty of exploring Mars

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft launched from Russia this week destined for Mars has yet to leave Earth orbit – and looks increasingly likely to tumble back to Earth with its full tanks of toxic fuel.

In this photo distributed by Russian Roscosmos space agency on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011, Russian space engineers prepare the unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. The Russian mission to fly an unmanned probe to Phobos, a moon of Mars, and fly samples of its soil back to Earth was derailed after its launch by equipment failure.

Russian Roscosmoc space agency/AP

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A spacecraft launched from Russia last Wednesday and originally destined for Mars has yet to leave Earth orbit – and looks increasingly likely to tumble back to Earth over the next several weeks.

The craft, Phobos-Grunt (Phobos Soil), was to have traveled to Mars' moon Phobos to gather and return to Earth samples of the moon's soil and rocks. But once the craft reached Earth orbit, motors in the rocket stage that would have set Phobos-Grunt on its path to the red planet failed to ignite.

Engineers with Roscomsos, the Russian Federation Space Agency, have tried to communicate with the craft in hopes of igniting the motors before changes to the orbits of Earth and Mars close the window of opportunity over the next few days.

But according to updates on the website RussianSpaceWeb.com, all attempts have failed so far. If efforts to send the mission on its way fail, the craft – brimming with a load of toxic fuel in tanks that potentially could survive reentry – could reenter Earth's atmosphere at the end of the month.

Russia's travails serve as a fresh reminder that space exploration is hard.

"That's why it's called rocket science," says Ralph McNutt, chief scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and the project scientist for NASA's Messenger mission, whose spacecraft currently is orbiting Mercury.

It's a point not lost on Mars-mission planners at NASA, who are preparing to launch the $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory Nov. 25.

Phobos-Grunt and the Mars Science Laboratory represent the most ambitious Mars-exploration missions to date for their respective space agencies.

The lab is a 1-ton rover loaded with instruments to analyze Martian rocks and soil within a vast feature dubbed Gale Crater. Although the rover isn't designed to hunt for life, it will be hunting for organic compounds that would help determine whether the planet had conditions that could have supported life.

In one sense, the world's space agencies have a success rate at the Mars-mission plate that major-league ball players would envy. Since 1960, when the then-Soviet Union launched the first mission to the red planet, which failed, 35 launches by four nations have amassed a .329 average, based on NASA's tabulation of international Mars launches.

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