Engineers fight for stranded Mars probe after 'sign of life' (Update)

November 23, 2011
The Phobos-Grunt probe at Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome, October 2011. A European tracking station in western Australia has "established contact" with Russia's Phobos-Grunt space probe, which has been stranded in orbit since its launch on November 8

Engineers fought desperately on Wednesday to save Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft after the Martian probe sent "a first sign of life" more than two weeks after being stranded in orbit.

After days of frustrating silence, contact with the probe was made on Tuesday at 2025 GMT at a European Space Agency ground station in Perth, Western Australia, the Paris-based ESA said.

"ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft," it said.

A spokesman at European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, told AFP: "We sent an instruction to (the probe) to switch on its transmitter and the probe sent us telemetric data.

"However, we do not have all the details and we are not very sure of what we received. It's a first sign of life," he said.

The probe is in a "very low, very unfavourable orbit (that) is difficult to identify accurately," the spokesman added.

The task is being complicated by very narrow windows for communication "of between five and 10 minutes," he explained.

The five-billion-ruble ($165-million) mission is one of the most ambitious in the history of Martian exploration.

It is designed to travel to the moon of Phobos, scoop up soil and return the sample to Earth by 2014.

But mission control lost radio contact with the craft hours after launch on November 8, leaving engineers bewildered as to where it was. On Tuesday, Russia's space agency had said it saw "little chance" of saving the 13.5-tonne vessel.

On Tuesday, 22 November at 20:25 UT, ESA's tracking station at Perth, Australia, established contact with Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. The contact with the Mars mission was lost shortly after launch on 8 November. ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft. Credit: ESA

In Moscow, the Russian space agency Roskosmos confirmed the ESA report.

It said the Perth station had received a radio signal from Phobos-Grunt during a scheduled monitoring period and European and Russian were "appraising the situation."

The probe blasted off successfully from the Baikonur cosmodrome but did not manage to leave its Earth orbit as planned.

Motors failed to fire twice to steer it on a course for Mars, and it is still carrying the fuel that would have been used in this manoeuvre.

But before losing control of the probe, the Russians sent out instructions for it to deploy its solar panels, an ESA official said.

"Initially, it was thought that the spacecraft would die after three days when its battery ran out.

"But the solar panels played a crucial role yesterday, enabling the ground station in Perth to make contact," the source said.

Perth is the sole means of communicating with Phobos-Grunt as it is the only listening post in a part of the Earth that is in daylight when the probe passes overhead, the official explained.

Exposure to the sunlight provides electricity to the spacecraft, enabling to briefly talk to the ground. But it loses power when it moves over ground stations in parts of the globe that are in night.

Phobos-Grunt is also carrying a Chinese satellite, Yinghuo-1, which was to go into orbit around Mars in a landmark space cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

Orbiting Mars at just under 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) distance, Phobos is believed to be the closest moon to any planet in the Solar System. It has long intrigued scientists, who believe it holds secrets about the origins of the planets.

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2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 23, 2011
27 Nov 1622 overhead 255 Km altitude *and* range, first magnitude!
3 / 5 (4) Nov 23, 2011
I love the play with meaning that they are going for with this "sign of life" phrase.
It can be considered deceiving just for the sake of getting page views, and I hate that. But at the same time I can not deny it was very subtle and wicked and clever, allowing them to claim innocence of any purposeful deception, and I love that.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2011
"Sing of life" got me :(
1 / 5 (9) Nov 23, 2011
I love the play with meaning that they are going for with this "sign of life" phrase.
It can be considered deceiving just for the sake of getting page views, and I hate that. But at the same time I can not deny it was very subtle and wicked and clever, allowing them to claim innocence of any purposeful deception, and I love that.

Purposeful deception? Hmmm. . . .there are SOME who are of the opinion that the Phobos-Grunt's purposes were TWO-fold. One was to be a spy satellite in low Earth orbit for a certain amount of time, thus the deploying of the solar panels before all contact was allegedly lost. Then, after the first purpose was accomplished, the probe would blast off towards the Mars moon, Phobos. I suppose that anything is possible at this time, so I will leave it at that. Personally, I will go with the news reports.
5 / 5 (10) Nov 23, 2011

Do you honestly believe that the Russians don't already have a ring of 'spy' satellites in place?

Perhaps you can tell us how valuable it would be to have a spy satellite orbit for such a short time? What could it possibly be taking pictures of right now? How would that be different from the information gathering which is already available to Russia?

Also, why would they have to be duplicitous about it? There's nothing illegal, no need for real secrecy when deploying a spy satellite. All countries can easily track overhead satellites via radar, keeping one a secret (or 'hidden in plain sight') would be futile.

I fear for our species the way we show such paranoid fear of conspiracy over the stupidest things, yet give a free pass to the oppression and control that governments and corporations are openly engaging in.
4 / 5 (8) Nov 23, 2011
Is it time for everyone to ignore Pirouette, yet?

This is from his/her profile:

"I believe the Universe & everything in it was created out of chaos, into a well-ordered and logical sequence of processes & events that were made possible by The Creator aka Nature aka Chemistry over trillions of Terran years, & that it is up to scientists to disprove my beliefs. So far, they have failed to disprove it."

Trillions?!?!? He/she is apparently similar to, or actually, a Scientologist.

Piro, they have proved you wrong, as much as anything CAN be proven. If you won't accept that scientists are telling you that all the evidence points to a Universe of ~13.7 billion years, what makes you think you can "buff your learning curve" at all?
1.3 / 5 (13) Nov 23, 2011

Regardless of other purposes for the spacecraft, I look forward to information on the material returned by this mission, if successful.

It took me forty years to figure out why the Apollo program was cancelled in 1971 [1].

"The Deep Roots of the Climate Scandal (1971-2011)"


World leaders do not necessarily tell the reasons for their decisions.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
3 / 5 (6) Nov 23, 2011
"Is it time for everyone to ignore Pirouette, yet?" - Skultch

3.4 / 5 (8) Nov 23, 2011
"Regardless of other purposes for the spacecraft, I look forward to information on the material returned by this mission, if successful." - OmaTard

Poor OmaTard the neutron star in his eye has prevented him from reading that the window to transit to Mars is long gone.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 23, 2011
@Temple. . . .as I've said, there are SOME people who believe that. I also said that I will wait for the news on that since I have no idea what the Russians are doing or not doing. Thanks for your input anyway. :)
1.3 / 5 (3) Nov 24, 2011
I don't have very much confidence in the upcoming launch of the next NASA mission to Mars, the MSL Mars Science Laboratory with the Curiosity SUV. This program has been mismanaged from day 1 but all of a sudden, it will be able to perfectly execute the most complicated descent and landing ever attempted...(in these shoes?) I don't think so.
2.3 / 5 (4) Nov 24, 2011
I disagree, rah. . . .I'm very optimistic about the MSL mission and I think it will all go very well. However, all the wishing in the world doesn't guarantee anything. But I trust good ol' American technology and know-how to make sure that everything is in great working order.
not rated yet Nov 27, 2011
Fought what? I suspect that you meant 'worked very hard' or something to that effect.
not rated yet Nov 28, 2011
Sounds like the craft is tumbling slowly. Sad. If the orbit is not as planned, then insertion into a Mars trajectory is probably hopeless.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2011
Stop sending your crappy spacecraft to our planet you lanky bald monkeys. Can't you see we are busy trying to get some global warming round here? Atmosphere completely filled with CO2 and were still freezing our little green nuts off.

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