Phobos-Grunt, the Russian probe to the larger of Mars' moons, appears to be stalled in the parking lot:
The Phobos-Grunt probe blasted off successfully from the Baikonur cosmodrome overnight but did not manage to leave its Earth orbit as planned several hours later to go on its planned trajectory for Mars, the Russian space agency said.
Engineers now have three days to send the probe out to Mars while batteries last. The loss of the probe would be a disaster for Russia, which has not had a single successful planetary mission since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Quick clarification: Phobos-Grunt's failure would not in fact be a "disaster for Russia" any more than the bankruptcy of Solyndra has brought the United States to its knees.
In his column yesterday, Ron Bailey discussed the terror of Phoban creepy-crawlies in the soil sample Phobos-Grunt was supposed to return:
The next sample return mission, the Russian Phobos-Grunt robotic lander, will launch tomorrow with the goal of landing on Mars' moon Phobos to scoop up and return a sample of its soil.
The reason for avoiding back contamination is pretty clear; we want to avoid an Andromeda Strain scenario in which an unleashed alien life form harms Earth life including people.
The term "soil" is to be used with caution in discussing a potato-shaped celestial body with a total surface area about a third that of Los Angeles County. In any event it now appears that our snail darters and delta smelts will remain safe from arelunar contamination.
Best wishes to the Russian space agency in trying to push the probe toward its destination. Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin calls the situation "non-standard" but not a "disaster." An anonymous source is, as anonymous sources tend to be, more pessimistic, saying there is almost no chance Phobos-Grunt will land on Phobos and telling Interfax, "Unfortunately, the worst predictions have come true."
Clarification: There are always worse predictions.