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Mars Phobos-Grunt Probe Has Finally Responded To Signals

November 23, 2011

Russia´s Phobos-Grunt space probe, lost in Earth´s orbit for the past two weeks, has finally responded to a signal from space officials working for the European Space Agency (ESA).

ESA said on its website today that its tracking station in Perth, Australia had received a signal from the probe at 2025 GMT on Tuesday. ESA is now working with Russian space agency Roscosmos to try to maintain communications with Phobos-Grunt.

“ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft,” Roscosmos said, promising more news as soon as it has any.

Phobos-Grunt, launched on 9 November from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, failed to fire its onboard engine after separating from the rocket booster that delivered it into space. Russian space officials have worked feverishly to make contact with the debilitated craft without any success, until now.

Now that contact has been made, Russian controllers hope they can establish what is wrong with the craft and fix it. But a rapidly narrowing window may have ended the craft℠s chances of making it to the Red Planet. A change in the alignment of the planets has produced a gap between Mars and Earth that is ultimately too large to cross.

A source at Roscosmos told RIA Novosti news agency that the window to get Phobos-Grunt working and heading in the right direction toward Mars closed on Monday, 21 November.

The spacecraft has already unfolded its solar panels and is in the so-called “barbeque mode,” the source said, speaking about the passive thermal control mode during which the spacecraft rotates slowly around its roll axis to prevent one side from continuous solar exposure and overheating.

Although the window for a Martian journey is gone, experts have suggested a number of alternative space explorations the probe could do if engineers can get it up and running.

The favorite alternative mission is a trip to Earth´s moon, something that Roscosmos said it was considering.

Rene Pishel, head of the ESA in Russia, told RIA that even though contact had been made, it´s only the start of rescuing the lost probe. “This is the beginning of the process, telemetry has not been obtained and we’re working closely with our Russian colleagues,” said Pishel.

If engineers fail to determine what is actually wrong with the craft and cannot get it working properly, the craft will likely fall out of orbit sometime within the next six weeks, burning up on reentry to Earth.

The head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, dismissed media reports about possible reentry risk, saying Phobos-Grunt contains 7.5 metric tons of highly toxic fuel in its aluminum tanks, which are very likely to explode and destroy the probe upon reentry.

An anonymous source at Roscosmos said some parts of the probe may actually rain on Earth, but they pose no danger.

Roscosmos expects the possible reentry to take place no earlier than January. However, now that they have contact, officials hope to keep that line open so they can fix the problem and get Phobos-Grunt fully operational.

But if engineers are unable to fix the craft and it does fall back to Earth, it would not affect the pace of Russia´s space exploration, Popovkin said, noting that while only 30 percent of Soviet-Russian launches to Mars were successful, Americans have had only a 50 percent success, and all attempts by Europe and Japan have also failed.

But, according to NASA, all 17 of Russia´s attempts to send missions to the Red Planet since 1960 have failed. The most recent failure occurred in 1996, when Russia lost its Mars-96 orbiter during the launch.

Image Caption: Color image of Phobos, imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. Credit: NASA

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports