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Russian scientists try to save Mars moon probe after engine failure

The challenges for the Phobos-Grunt were daunting, making it arguably the most challenging unmanned interplanetary mission ever. It would require a long series of precision maneuvering for the probe to reach the potato-shaped moon, land on its surface, scrape it for samples and fly back.

Scientists hoped that studies of the Phobos soil could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe that the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's a piece of debris resulting from Mars' collision with another celestial object.

NPO Lavochkin's chief Viktor Khartov described the current mission as essential to maintain the nation's technological expertise in robotic missions to other planets.

“This is practically the last chance for the people who participated in the previous project to share their experience with the next generation, to preserve the continuity,” Khartov said before the launch, according to the Interfax news agency.

China has contributed to the mission by adding a mini-satellite that is to be released when the craft enters an orbit around Mars on its way to Phobos. The 115-kilogram (250-pound) satellite, Yinghuo-1, will become the first Chinese spacecraft to explore Mars, studying the planet during two years in orbit.

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Russian scientists try to save Mars moon probe after engine failure
The Zenit-2SB rocket with Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) craft blasts off from its launch pad at the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, early Wednesday, Nov. 9. The daring Russian ...

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