* Russia aims for first interplanetary flight since Soviet era
* Space agency says engines failed to fire, craft left in orbit
* Chinese satellite and U.S. study piggyback on mission
* Launch window for Mars flight closes in roughly two weeks (Adds space expert comments, updates with latest)
By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, Nov 9 (Reuters) - A Russian spacecraft designed to bring back soil samples from one of the moons of Mars veered off course on Wednesday after its launch, clouding hopes Russia could pull off its first interplanetary mission in more than two decades.
Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said an engine failed to fire on the unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe after it reached Earth’s orbit, leaving Moscow with just two weeks to fix the problem before a window for reaching Mars closes.
Space officials initially said the $163 million craft had only three days of battery power left, but later said it could remain operational for two weeks. But they worried the 12.5-tonne craft could plunge from its low orbit into Earth’s atmosphere in days.
“The engine did not fire, neither the first nor the second burn occurred,” state television quoted Popovkin as saying at Russia’s Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.
The mission to bring back a sample of soil — “grunt” in Russian — from the Martian moon Phobos was supposed to reassert Russia’s place at the front line of space exploration.
Failure would be a major blow to the pride of Russia’s space industry, which was crimped by budget cuts and a brain drain following the 1991 Soviet collapse and suffered a humiliating series of setbacks this year.
If Moscow cannot bounce the craft out of orbit, the probe could plummet into the atmosphere, with some Russian media speculating smoldering chunks could crash back to Earth.
However, space expert Igor Marinin said it was more likely to explode into a ball of flame, burning up entirely, due to large amounts of fuel on board.
“It can survive in this orbit five, six, maybe seven days: Either they raise its orbit in this time and continue to work on fixing whatever went wrong or it will fall,” Marinin, editor of the industry journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki, told Reuters.
“If in the next two weeks our engineers don’t think up anything, then it will already be useless to send it to Mars because it either won’t make it there or it will fly past it.”
Wednesday’s launch was set during a rare window to strike our toward the Red Planet when it is closest to Earth. Such chances come for a brief period every 780 days. Phobos-Grunt missed its last 2009 launch window over delays in construction.
Space agency Roskosmos said it must wait until the craft made its next pass over a ground control centre in Baikonur to have contact and try to find out why it failed.
“They say there is hope to reset it, apparently it’s a problem with the programming but there is very little time,” the lead mission scientist Alexander Zakharov of the Space Research Institute told Reuters.
“It’s very sad that this is how it all worked out but this is a consequence of our lack of people after such a big interval... We are working almost from scratch.”
The 5-billion-rouble ($163 million) probe blasted off at 12:16 a.m. Moscow time (2016 GMT Tuesday) on a Zenit-2SB rocket, starting what was meant to be a three-year voyage. The craft is insured only up to 1.2 billion roubles ($40 million), Marinin said.
It is an undertaking haunted by past failures. If successful, its journey will be the first of 18 Soviet or Russian probes to Mars to fulfil its mission in full.
“We have always been very unlucky with Mars,” Zakharov said. Moscow’s last successful missions beyond Earth orbit, Vega 1 and 2, probed Venus and Halley’s Comet in the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, U.S. rovers have logged hundreds of hours on Mars, India and China have sent probes to Earth’s moon, while Japan has visited an asteroid and brought back samples.
Mars missions saw a recent burst of publicity as six men completed a 520-day Earth-bound, isolation study in Russia to see whether people can endure the long journey.
Mars’ potato-shaped satellite Phobos, a mere 22 km (13 miles) across, has fascinated scientists since the 1960s heyday of pioneering Soviet forays into space.
Dust from Phobos, they say, could shed light on the genesis of the solar system and help solve enduring mysteries such as whether Earth’s neighbour has ever supported life.
The plan is for Phobos-Grunt to reach Mars orbit next year, touch down on the larger of its two tiny moons in 2013, collect a sample from the surface and fly back to Earth in 2014.
Hitching a ride is China’s first interplanetary module Yinghuo-1, which is to study the atmosphere of Mars.
Phobos-Grunt is also carrying bacteria, plant seeds and tiny animals known as water bears, to see if they can survive beyond the protective bubble of the Earth’s magnetic field. ($1 = 30.288 Russian Roubles) (Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Myra MacDonald)