The European Space Agency (ESA) has managed to re-establish communications with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft.
Contact with the Mars mission was lost on November 8th shortly after the spacecraft separated from its launch vehicle.
Two automated burns of the Fregat engine were to have boosted Phobos-Grunt onto an interplanetary trajectory for the Red Planet. The burns failed and the craft is currently orbiting Earth at an altitude of 200 km – 340 km.
The $170 million Phobos-Grunt (“Phobos-Soil”) mission was originally slated to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons, and retrieve a soil sample for analysis back on Earth. The spacecraft is also carrying China’s first interplanetary probe, Yinghuo 1, which was supposed to have been deployed in Martian orbit.
However, Russia’s deputy space chief Vitaly Davydov has conceded that the ”chances of accomplishing the mission are very slim.” He also confirmed the Phobos-Grunt would likely crash on Earth between late December and late February if engineers couldn’t regain control of the vessel.
Although Davydov said the site of a potential crash couldn’t be determined more than a day in advance, he did emphasize that “if you calculate the probability of [the spacecraft] hitting somebody on the head, it is close to zero.”
The failure of Russia’s $170 million Phobos-Grunt could prompt Moscow to accept an open invitation to join future U.S.-European space missions to Mars. Indeed, the country is already in talks NASA and the European Space Agency about participating in two upcoming Mars expeditions scheduled for 2016 and 2018.
According to Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin, Moscow may send exploration equipment along with the missions, or assist with the rocket that launches the ships into space.
“Missions to distant planets will become more and more international,” said Popovkin. “We’ll see what degree of participation we’re offered. [Obviously], we prefer the first option.”