Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Contact with stuck Mars probe raises hopes

Two weeks after a post-launch glitch left the $170 million Russian Phobos-Grunt probe parked in earth orbit and out of contact with the Russian space agency, a ground based station in Australia has managed to establish contact with the spacecraft.
It’s unclear whether this contact will facilitate the resumption of the mission to land on the Martian moon Phobos and return a soil sample. The 13-ton spacecraft reached earth orbit as planned, but did not fire it’s engines as planned to begin it’s long journey to Mars. At this point it’s also unclear whether the window of opportunity for the probe’s journey remains open, or has passed.
MSNBC reported that the outlook for resuming the mission isn’t favorable:
On Tuesday, the Interfax news agency quoted Russia's deputy space chief, Vitaly Davydov, as saying that "chances to accomplish the mission are very slim." Then ESA said its tracking station in Perth, Australia, made contact with the probe late Tuesday (20:25 GMT, or 3:25 p.m. ET).
"ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft," the agency reported on its website Wednesday.
It's not clear what options are still available for continuing Phobos-Grunt's mission. Some reports from Russia have suggested that the opportunity for a round trip to Phobos and back has been lost. Davydov, however, said Russian engineers had until the end of the month to fix the probe's engines and send it on a path to Phobos.
Russian scientists could fix the problem if the probe failed because of a software flaw, but some experts think that the failure was rooted in hardware that's difficult to fix.

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