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International community makes last-ditch attempt to save Russian space probe

Officials from NASA and the European Space Agency have pitched in to help save the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe, which was supposed to fly to a Martian moon to collect soil samples but is instead stuck in orbit around Earth. 

By Leonard / November 22, 2011

The unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe is seen in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. The Russian mission to fly an unmanned probe to Phobos, a moon of Mars, and fly samples of its soil back to Earth was derailed shortly after its launch earlier this month by equipment failure.

Russian Federal Space Agency/AP


An international effort is under way to save Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars, but time is quickly running out on propelling the probe toward the Red Planet.

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The interplanetary undertaking is designed to visit Phobos, one of the moons of Mars, and return samples to Earth by 2014.

But Phobos-Grunt's deadline only chance for departure from Earth orbit is projected to be Nov. 24, due to the alignment of Earth and Mars as well as the spacecraft's fuel status to attain the outward-bound oomph required.

Using powerful radio dishes to monitor the vehicle, officials from the European Space Agency, NASA and Russia have been engaged in a global endeavor to rescue the spacecraft, which has been stranded in low-Earth orbit since its Nov. 8 launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. After the Phobos-Grunt probe separated from its Zenit booster, the probe failed to perform a critical maneuver needed to begin the trek toward Mars. [Photos: Russia's Mars Moon Mission]

Tracking services

"We are trying to help them out of trouble," said Wolfgang Hell, the service manager who is overseeing the European Space Agency's support to Russia's NPO Lavochkin, the main contractor on the Phobos-Grunt project. Hell is based at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

"Normally, we were supposed to step in, so to speak, and provide tracking services with our ground station network once the spacecraft was on an escape trajectory to Mars," Hell told "It was never planned that we would support the spacecraft while in the near-Earth phase."

Hell said that his Russian colleagues have gained a better understanding of what ails the spacecraft. "They reached the conclusion that they have some kind of power problem onboard. So they have become more specific in terms of what we should be doing to help them."

But that help embraces a number of challenges, Hell said.

For instance, the spacecraft risks running out of electrical power each time the probe is eclipsed as it spins around Earth. Commanding Phobos-Grunt , therefore, is possible only while it's facing the sun.

Also, due to a lack of downlink from the craft's onboard transponder, ground trackers must rely on imprecise radar-tracking data. Not knowing exactly where the spacecraft is makes pointing ground transmitting antennas correctly a challenge.

"It takes a lot of luck to really hit the spacecraft with a main beam," Hell said. "Because it's in such a low-Earth orbit … we have so little time, something like six to eight minutes, to get the command up."


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