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Russian spacecraft Phobos-Grunt got lost on its way to one of Mars' moons, shortly after its launch. Scientists were struggling to get the unmanned craft back on course Wednesday.
However, its engines failed to fire and set the craft on course toward Mars, leaving the probe stuck in Earth's orbit.
Scientists now have three days to get the craft back on track before its batteries run out, according to the head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency, Vladimir Popovkin.
He blamed the fault on the craft's orientation system. Reports suggest the craft failed to detect its correct location and give the signal for the engines to fire.
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If the problem lies with the craft's software it can probably be fixed, said the BBC's science expert Jonathan Amos, whereas if the hardware is at fault, the mission could be a write-off.
If the spacecraft is not fixed, it will become a tank of highly toxic fuel waiting to fall to Earth, warned space expert James Oberg:
"About seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever."
Russia has a history of failed missions to Mars: of its 16 attempted missions since the 1960s, none has successfully completed its goals, notes Amos. The last probe Russia launched, in 1996, crashed shortly into its flight due to engine failure.
The $170-million probe was designed to collect dust and rock samples from Mars' moon Phobos. If fixed, it should reach its destination by September 2012.
Phobos-Grunt's failure would also mean disappoint for China: the craft is carrying China's first ever Martian satellite, Yinghuo-1, which it was due to drop off in Mars' orbit.
Watch Al Jazeera's video of the craft's launch:
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