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Phobos Grunt: European Space Agency Establishes Contact With Errant Probe

Phobos Grunt

VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and MELISSA EDDY   11/23/11 12:29 PM ET   AP

MOSCOW — The European Space Agency has received the first signal from an unmanned Russian spacecraft bound for a moon of Mars since it got stuck in Earth's orbit two weeks ago, officials said Wednesday, raising hope the mission might be saved.

Russia's space agency said an ESA tracking facility in Australia got the signal from the Phobos-Ground probe early Wednesday in the western city of Perth.

ESA's teams of flight dynamics technicians, who calculate the orbits, and the operational center staff, who actually send up the signal, had been helping to try to communicate with the Russian probe for the past 10 days, said Bernhard von Weyhe a spokesman for ESA, based at its operational headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany.

Roscosmos said in a statement that Russian and European space experts will coordinate further attempts to contact the probe. Weyhe said the next try would occur later Wednesday when the spacecraft is expected to pass over the satellite dishes in Australia.

Weyhe said that technicians in Perth used a little side antenna rigged with a cone to send up a wide, but weak, signal – only 3 watts – to the probe. The strength resembled a signal that would be used to communicate with the craft once it reaches deep space, which is what it was programmed for.

"We did it as if the probe was on Mars, not only 200 to 340 kilometers (125 to 210 miles) away from Earth," Weyhe said.

The $170 million craft became stranded in orbit after its thrusters failed to fire following the Nov. 9 launch to send it on its path to one of Mars' two moons, Phobos. The initial contact raised hopes of preventing the probe from crashing back to Earth.

Weyhe said the contact could be the first step in restablizing the mission, but underlined that the European Space Agency is only offering support to the Russians, who would have to decide the mission's future.

"It's up to the Russians to say what they will do," Weyhe said.

Roscosmos' deputy chief, Vitaly Davydov, said Tuesday that space experts will keep trying until the end of the month to fix the probe and steer it to its designated flight path. If they fail, the craft could plummet to Earth some time between late December and late February, he warned, adding that the site of the crash cannot be established more than a day in advance.

The spacecraft weighs 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons) with a highly toxic rocket fuel accounting for most of its weight. There have been concerns the fuel could freeze and spill on impact, although most experts believe it will likely stay liquid and burn up on re-entry.

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Eddy reported from Berlin.

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Filed by Ramona Emerson  |