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Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt probe was supposed to be a comeback

Russia's Phobos-Grunt probe, which was supposed to fly to one of Mars's moons and return with a soil sample, broke down shortly after launch and is now uselessly orbiting Earth. Is Russia's space industry on the verge of collapse?

By Alissa de CarbonnelReuters / November 22, 2011

The unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe is seen in 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 shortly after its launch earlier this month by equipment failure.

Russian Federal Space Agency/AP

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Moscow

Russia's unsuccessful launch of a Mars moon probe points up the problems of a once-pioneering space industry struggling to recover after a generation of brain drain and crimped budgets.

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An unmanned craft, launched last Wednesday in what was meant to be post-Soviet Russia's interplanetary debut, got stuck in Earth's orbit and may drop down into the atmosphere within days.

The failure rattled Russian space officials but came as no surprise to many industry veterans who saw the ambitious mission to bring back dirt from the Martian moon Phobos as a pipe dream.

"Unfortunately, no miracle occurred," veteran cosmonaut Yuri Baturin quipped to the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

Despite improved budgets and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's pledge to restore pride in the sector, the Russian space industry is saddled the legacy of a lost generation of expertise, in many cases obsolete ground equipment and outdated Soviet-era designs.

It is plagued by the same corner cutting, decaying infrastructure and lack of effective quality control that are blamed for frequent disasters across Russia's industries, from coal mine and dam explosions to air crashes.

The Soviet Union began the space age over half a century ago by launching the satellite Sputnik, but Russia has been entirely absent from space beyond Earth's orbit for 20 years, while U.S. probes have voyaged into the farthest reaches of the solar system. Even newcomers India, China and Japan have sent unmanned missions to the moon and beyond.

Post-Soviet Russia's sole attempt to strike out to other planets ended in the spectacular breakup of its Mars-96 probe in the atmosphere in 1996.

Smarting from the crash, Russia withdrew from deep space for 15 years. The $165 million Phobos-Grunt probe, first conceived in the 1990s, was to be its comeback mission.

The troubles cap a humiliating string of costly botched launches that marred this year's celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering human space flight.

"It's very sad but it's a result of the difficult period we lived through in the 1990s. We are working almost from scratch," lead Phobos-Grunt mission scientist Alexander Zakharov said.

Space agency Roskosmos largely survived the funding crunch by selling tourists and foreign astronauts seats on its Soviet-design space capsules and lofting foreign satellites on rockets converted from Soviet-era missiles.

Since the U.S. space shuttles retired this summer, Russia's Soyuz are the only ships flying crews to the International Space Station (ISS), at a cost of about $350 million a year to NASA.

But Russia has nothing to be proud of in this, its new space agency chief told lawmakers last month in a gloomy speech outlining "deep" sector problems at the root of recent mishaps.

"While other countries are developing new things, we're forced to focus on ... old spacecraft," Vladimir Popovkin said.

Moscow has over-prioritized human space flight, he said, and must shift focus back to deep-space exploration and Earth observation, offering greater science and technology returns.

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