What happened to Phobos-Grunt and can it be saved?

The future is looking grim for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission.  The Phobos-Grunt mission was to travel to Mars moon Phobos, collect soil samples and return to Earth nearly 3 years later.  Its looking like that mission and the Yinghuo 1 Mars satellite hitching a ride as well will never make it beyong low Earth orbit.

The mission started well enough with a successful launch of the  Zenit rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan shortly after midnight local time Wednesday.  The preprogrammed engine burns failed to take the spacecraft out of Earth orbit.  The spacecraft is not responding to commands from the ground and remains in a precariously oval Earth orbit which is expected to decay somewhere between 51.4º North and 51.4º South.  This is of concern due to the nearly full load of fuel onboard. more than 3 times the weight of the spacecraft itself.  It’s a long way to Mars.

Early estimates have the spacecraft re-entering sometime in December, with better estimates available as time goes on.  It’s difficult to estimate re-entry time and place due to the dynamic nature of the upper atmosphere and the impact that the constantly changing space weather has on it.  Early news reports speculate that the spacecraft, loaded with toxic fuel, would land in a populated area.  This is extremely unlikely given that most of the Earth is covered in water and an even small proportion of the land is populated.

Learn about Russia's Phobos-Grunt soil sampling probe in this SPACE.com infographic.

Infographic Source: SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration