Image: Phobos-Grunt
IKI
A schematic diagram shows the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft with its fuel tanks.
By
updated 11/14/2011 8:13:18 PM ET 2011-11-15T01:13:18

Russian engineers are still trying to communicate with a wayward Mars moon probe, and they have until early December to fix the spacecraft and send it on its way, according to news reports.

Russia's unmanned Phobos-Grunt spacecraft launched Nov. 8 on a mission to the Martian moon Phobos. The probe reached Earth orbit as planned, but its thrusters never fired to propel it toward the Red Planet. While all attempts to contact Phobos-Grunt since then have failed, the mission team hasn't given up hope, according to the Russian news service RIA Novosti.

"We estimate that the Phobos-Grunt will fly until January, and to make it perform its mission we still have time until the beginning of December," Ria Novosti quoted Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russia's Federal Space Agency (known as Roscosmos), as saying.

Changing the signal
Phobos-Grunt is currently zipping around Earth at an altitude of about 124 miles (200 kilometers). First contact with the probe was originally planned to be made at a much higher altitude, so engineers have scaled back the strength of the signal sent to the spacecraft, according to RIA Novosti. 

Phobos-Grunt weighs about 14.5 tons, and much of that weight is highly toxic hydrazine fuel. Some analysts have expressed concern that this fuel — as well as pieces of the probe itself — could pose a danger to people on the ground if Phobos-Grunt ends up crashing to Earth in a month or two.

But Popovkin downplayed those worries.

"There are 7.5 metric tons of fuel in the aluminum tanks on board. We have no doubts that they will explode [and destroy the probe] upon re-entry," RIA Novosti quoted Popovkin as saying. "It is highly unlikely that its parts would reach Earth."

Another failure?
The $163 million Phobos-Grunt mission aimed to land a probe on Phobos, scoop up some dirt and rock samples and send them back to Earth by 2014 ("grunt" means "soil" in Russian). The spacecraft is also carrying China's first Mars orbiter, a small satellite called Yinghuo 1, which was supposed to be deployed after Phobos-Grunt reached Mars in a year or so. [Photos: Russia's Mars Moon Mission]

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Phobos-Grunt is Russia's first attempt at a planetary mission since 1996, when the Mars 96 spacecraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean. If Phobos-Grunt cannot be saved, it would continue Russia's long string of Mars failures. The nation has launched 18 other spacecraft toward the Red Planet since 1960, and not one of them achieved full mission success.

If Phobos-Grunt falls back to Earth, it would also mark the third such uncontrolled spacecraft re-entry in the last few months.

In October, a dead German satellite known as ROSAT fell over the Bay of Bengal after orbiting Earth for 21 years. And in late September, a defunct NASA Earth-observing spacecraft called UARS burned up over the southern Pacific Ocean. No one was hurt in either case.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom  and on Facebook.

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Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. AURA / STSCI / NASA
    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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