|Update, Jan. 16, 2012: Russia's latest attempt at planetary exploration came to an unwelcome end yesterday, as the Photos-Grunt spacecraft "ceased to exist" (a phrase that Soviet and Russian space officials have used for decades) when it plunged into Earth's atmosphere. Although the timing and location remain uncertain, most sources believe the reentry occurred near 17:45 Universal Time, which placed it over the Pacific Ocean well to the west of South America. Despite intensive efforts to regain control of Phobos-Grunt when it became stranded in Earth orbit after its November 9th launch, communication was never fully restored and, because of the orbit's low altitude, the spacecraft's fate became inevitable.|
Unfortunately, after the Zenit did its job, a Fregat-derived upper stage did not. It failed to propel the spacecraft away from Earth and toward Mars. (This failure came to light not from official Russian announcements but rather from Western satellite trackers, who noticed that the craft's orbit didn't change after the times of two planned firings.) As of this morning, the spacecraft-rocket combo remains stuck in an extremely low orbit that's inclined 51° to the equator and ranges from 210 to 128 miles (339 to 206 km).
According to unconfirmed reports, a few hours after liftoff Phobos-Grunt radioed that its solar panels had deployed and that all systems were functioning well. But in the two days since, no one has heard from the spacecraft. Efforts to reestablish contact, using both Russian ground stations and those of the European Space Agency, have been unsuccessful.
The current parking orbit is too low to be stable. Unless Russian engineers can get that engine to fire, it will all reenter in about three weeks. Unfortunately, the assembly contains about 10 tons of the highly toxic propellants unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.
The Phobos-Grunt mission was both ambitious and complicated, fraught with long delays due to downsizing of the Russian space effort and a host of technical challenges. The timeline called for the spacecraft to begin orbiting Mars next September, to land on the little moon Phobos in February 2013, and to return a capsule with several ounces (200 g) of soil in August 2014. (The Russian word grunt can be translated as either "soil" or "ground," so here I'm using the mission name that most sources have adopted.)
Also on board are two hitchhiker payloads: a small orbiter called Yinghuo 1, intended to be the first Chinese craft to reach Mars; and the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, funded by the Planetary Society, designed to transport a small sealed container with 10 types of microorganisms to Mars and back.
The difficulties with Phobos-Grunt is hauntingly identical to the fate of the Mars 96 mission almost exactly 15 years ago. On November 16, 1996, the craft's Proton launcher placed it in a parking orbit as planned, but the upper stage failed to fire and four hours later the craft came crashing down over the Atacama desert near the Chile-Bolivia border. Prior to that, a pair of craft bound for the same Martian moon were both lost. Phobos 1 was en route to the Red Planet when a flawed software update deactivated its thrusters; Phobos 2 reached Mars and was just days from dispatching two landers onto the satellite when, mysteriously, contact with it was lost.
And so the Russians' string of bad luck with their Mars missions continues. Maybe there really is a "Great Galactic Ghoul" that gobbles up Mars-bound spacecraft without warning.
By the way, I have only scratched the surface of this sad and unfolding space drama. For fuller accounts, check out the postings of the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla and RussianSpaceWeb.com's Anatoly Zak.