December 3, 2011

ESA To Halt Phobos-Grunt Contact Attempts

European Space Agency (ESA) efforts to contact the stranded Phobos-Grunt probe have been abandoned, the organization has announced.

The probe, which was scheduled to head to the largest of Mars' two moons on a roughly 2.5 year mission, was stranded in Earth's orbit shortly after its November 9 launch. Last week, both the ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) were able to briefly re-establish contact with Phobos-Grunt, but further attempts to send commands to the probe have been unsuccessful, Jim Heintz of the Associated Press (AP) reported on Friday.

Heintz added that a spokesperson with the European organization said that Roscosmos would continue to try to contact the craft throughout the weekend. That individual asked not to be identified, the AP reporter added, and attempts to contact officials with the Russian space agency late in the day on Friday were unsuccessful.

"In consultation and agreement with Phobos-Grunt mission controllers, ESA engineers will end ESTRACK ground station support today," representatives from the organization told the Russian International News Agency RIA Novosti. "ESA ground teams remain available to assist the Phobos-Grunt mission if indicated by any change in the situation"

"We have already told our colleagues at the (Russian) Lavochkin institute that if communication bids during the day and tonight fail we will stop," Rene Pichel, an ESA representative stationed in Russia, told Interfax news agency, according to AFP reports. "They're mobilizing resources that we could use for other projects."

On November 23, officials at the ESA ground station in Perth, Australia, had reported receiving a signal from the craft. They told the French news agency that they had successfully made contact with Phobos Grunt “at 2025 GMT on Tuesday," marking the first time since shortly after its launch that any signal had been picked up from the stranded vehicle.

The following day Roscosmos representatives announced that they, too, and made contact with the stranded probe. AFP, citing Interfax reports, said that spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov stated that his agency had received “a signal” and “some telemetry data” from the probe that Thursday afternoon, and that “specialists” at the agency´s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan were “working on this information.”

According to Heintz, Russian space officials have previously claimed that if the $165 million spacecraft, which contains about 12 tons of highly toxic fuel, is unable to complete its mission, it will likely fall back to Earth sometime between the end of this month and late February 2012.

Experts told the AP reporter that if the fuel has frozen, some of it could survive re-entry into the planet's atmosphere, which could potentially result in an environmental disaster.


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