The phobos-grunt spacecraft, pictured here on October 18, 2011, has failed to reach full orbit due to a fault in the engine.

Story highlights

Russia says probe's engine fails to start

The spacecraft is on a mission to Mars

This is the latest setback for Russia's space program

Moscow CNN  — 

An unmanned Russian probe launched on a mission to Mars early Wednesday failed to reach full orbit, the nation’s space chief said.

“It has been a tough night for us because we could not detect the spacecraft,” Vladimir Popovkin, the head of the Federal Space Agency, said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

“Now we know its coordinates and we found out that the (probe’s) engine failed to start.”

Technicians have three days to jump start the spacecraft’s on-board engine before its batteries run out.

“We will attempt to reboot the program. The spacecraft is currently on a support orbit, the fuel tanks have not been jettisoned, and the fuel has not been spent,” he said.

The $163-million probe is on a mission to Mars and its moon Phobos and would be the latest in a series of setbacks for Russia’s space program, if scientists can’t get it out of Earth orbit.

On August 24, a Progress M-12M space freighter carrying food and other items to the International Space Station broke up over southern Siberia after failing to separate from its Soyuz-U carrier rocket, RIA Novosti reported.

It was the first loss of a Progress freighter in more than 30 years of operation, according to the report, which said the cause was believed to be a rocket engine failure.

However, it was the second failed space launch in Russia in less than 10 days. On August 18, Russia lost a sophisticated Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite when the launch vehicle put it into the wrong orbit.

The Progress M-12M that went down was to deliver more than 3.8 tons of cargo to the space station crew, including food supplies, medical equipment, personal hygiene items and scientific equipment needed for experiments, according to Roscosmos and space officials.

CNN’s Maxim Tkachenko contributed to this report