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Russian space engineers are racing against time to save the Mars bound Phobos-Grunt space mission.

The spacecraft was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 20:16 GMT on the 8th November 2011 by a Zenit-2SB41 rocket and 11 minutes later successfully entered into an initial 207 × 347 kilometre (129 × 216 mile) orbit. After separating from the booster, the spacecraft attempted two necessary firings of its main propulsion unit to propel it out of Earth orbit and onto Mars. But unfortunately neither burn worked and Russia's Federal Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said the failure probably resulted from problems with the craft's orientation system.

Launch of Phobos-Grunt space mission (DLR)

Now that the probe is stuck in Earth orbit, engineers only have a few days to fix the fault before the batteries run out. If the problem is a software error, new commands could be uploaded to Phobos-Grunt to correct it, but if it is a hardware failure the spacecraft would be doomed unless a switch to a back-up system is possible.

Current reports from Russia are not looking good. Former senior space official Vladimir Uvarov at the Russian Defense Ministry told the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, "I think we have lost Phobos-Grunt". Another official has been quoted as saying "The chances of it being revived and sent on its way to Mars are extremely small."

Phobos (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Phobos-Grunt (the word "Grunt" is a translation of "soil") is intended to land on Phobos the largest Moon of Mars in February 2013, scoop up about 160 grams (5.5 ounces) of soil, and bring it back to Earth sometime in August 2014. The ambitious program is the first interplanetary mission by the Russian space agency for over a decade since the launch failure of another Mars mission, Mars 96 on the 16th November 1996.

**UPDATE: 13 Nov 2011 **

The Russian Interfax news agency has reported that efforts to resume contact with the Phobos Grunt spacecraft currently stranded in Low Earth orbit have failed and the probe is now lost. Interfax quoted a source in the Russian space sector saying on Saturday: "All attempts to obtain telemetric information from the Phobos-Grunt probe and activate its command system have failed. The probe must be considered lost". The source also added that the Russia's space agency will announce the failure of the mission in the next few days.