Russia’s troubled space program suffered a serious setback on November 17 when its "Mars-96" interplanetary space probe failed to attain sufficient speed to break out of earth orbit for a planned mission to Mars. Again, the problem was with a booster rocket — this time the fourth stage of the Proton-K launch vehicle, which apparently failed to ignite. Many European nations and the U.S. were involved in the Mars-96 project. A Russian space official said the probe would probably remain in orbit for no more than 30 days before disintegrating as it falls back into the earth’s atmosphere. (Interfax-Ukraine, November 17)
The Proton is Russia’s largest operational space booster and has had an enviable success since the first version was fired in 1965. The November 17 attempt was the 246th launch of a Proton. Seven of the 8 other launches this year using the Proton were successful, including the first Russian launch of an American commercial satellite. All of these launches, however, involved the 3-stage version of the Proton-K. Khrunichev, manufacturer of the Proton, and the American aerospace firm Lockheed Martin have formed a joint venture to market the Proton for international commercial launches.
Russia has been in friendly but serious competition with the U.S. to explore Mars. The Americans launched a probe for Mars two weeks ago and will send another probe on the way early in December. With only a two-month launch window every two years, the Russians are sure to fall behind.
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