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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. 

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The European Space Operations Center has volunteered to modify its 15-meter ESTRACK radio dish in Perth, Australia, to broadcast a very wide beam over the next few days, in hopes of successfully commanding the troubled probe. That could work, "unless there's something more serious with the spacecraft," Hell said.

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Impending launch window

There's not much time left, Hell added. "Right now the ultimate goal is still to rescue the mission. I'm not sure how good the chances are…but that's what we are working on."

According to Hell, the estimate by Russian space engineers is that Phobos-Grunt has until Nov. 24 to blast out of Earth's orbit and head toward the Red Planet before it has lost its only chance.

"That's the launch window. Beyond that day, there's not enough fuel to make it to Mars anymore," Hell said. Russian space engineers, he said, think the spacecraft's onboard control system is still in good shape, "and therefore there's still hope to recover the mission."

Hell said that the Russians have also concluded that, based on their observations,  the space probe's attitude-control thrusters are working nominally.

NASA, too, is engaged in trying to save the misbehaving spacecraft, working with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos.

In a statement provided to, NASA Headquarters spokesman Michael Braukus said:

"NASA is currently working with Roscosmos to provide requested technical and communications assistance regarding the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft using NASA's Deep Space Network and other assets. These efforts are ongoing. For further information on the Phobos-Grunt mission, please contact Roscosmos."

Fate of Phobos-Grunt

Meanwhile, an attentive network of amateur satellite trackers is keeping an eye on the fate of Phobos-Grunt — and the prospect that the spacecraft may re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

"There is never sufficient data on the forces acting on a satellite near decay to confidently predict the date of re-entry much in advance. It's a lot like forecasting the weather," said Ted Molczan of Toronto, Canada, a leader in the community of citizen satellite watchers.

Estimating the date when Phobos-Grunt will decay from orbit is further complicated by small orbit maneuvers that the spacecraft appears to be making, Molczan told Those maneuvers have been offsetting about half of the effect of atmospheric drag.

Given the variables, the spacecraft may remain in orbit until mid-February of next year, Molczan predicted. "If the maneuvering were to cease today, then decay would occur in early January. The uncertainty of both estimates is at least a couple of weeks."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of this year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for since 1999.


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