While the United States celebrated a banner year of Mars exploration, Russian scientists were mourning the loss of a $160 million spacecraft designed to retrieve soil from Mars’s moon Phobos. The Phobos-Grunt probe plummeted into the Pacific Ocean on January 17, two months after launch. Its upper-stage rockets had failed to fire after its initial ascent, and the craft never left Earth’s orbit.
Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, initially suggested the mission was sabotaged. Another official claimed a U.S. radar station had disabled the probe. But in February a Roscosmos investigation concluded the failure resulted from a software glitch.
The crash of Phobos-Grunt continued Russia’s befuddling Mars jinx. In 1988 it lost contact with two probes
also bound for Mars and Phobos, and in 1996 its Mars 96
orbiter failed to escape Earth’s orbit. However, Marcia Smith of the Space and Technology Policy Group in Virginia notes that Roscosmos successfully launched the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe in 2002, adding, “They’re just jinxed when it comes to their own Mars efforts.”