ESA makes contact with lost Martian probe

The European Space Agency says that one of its ground stations has managed to re-establish contact with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe, two weeks after control was lost.

Immediately after its launch on 9 November, the spacecraft veered off course after its engine failed to fire and ended up in Earth orbit.

With power running out and only a limited window in which to re-establish contact, there were fears that it could crash back to Earth in a potentially toxic explosion. However, it’s ended up in a slightly more stable orbit than first feared.

But ESA’s tracking station at Perth, Australia, has reported that it finally managed to establish contact with the spacecraft yesterday afternoon. ESA says its teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to work out how best to maintain communication.

As for regaining control of the probe, that depands on what the problem is. If it’s a software flaw, then there’s still a chance, as engineers would be able to upload a new set of commands. Even if engineers manage to regain control, though, it’s almost certainly too late for the mission to proceed as planned.

The probe was designed to travel to the Martian moon Phobos, reaching it next September and bringing back a soil sample in 2014. It’s also carrying experiments designed to test the effects of weightlessness on various different organisms, and a Chinese atmospheric probe, Yinghuo-1.

According to some reports, if the probe is indeed lost for good, Russia may decide instead to take part in two Martian expeditions being planned by NASA and ESA in 2016 and 2018.