Image: Phobos-Grunt
IKI
An artist's conception shows the Phobos-Grunt probe orbiting Mars. The spacecraft, which was designed to land on the Martian moon Phobos, has been stuck in Earth orbit since its launch on Nov. 9.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/23/2011 6:38:00 PM ET 2011-11-23T23:38:00

The European Space Agency reported Wednesday that a ground station in Australia has made repeated contacts with Russia's Phobos-Grunt probe, two weeks after a mysterious post-launch glitch.

The reports sparked a growing glimmer of hope for a mission that seemed as good as dead a day earlier.

The $170 million Phobos-Grunt ("Phobos-Soil") mission was designed to land on Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons, scoop up a soil sample and return it to Earth. The spacecraft is also carrying China's first interplanetary probe, Yinghuo 1, which is supposed to be dropped off in Martian orbit.

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Before its Nov. 9 launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Phobos-Grunt mission was heralded as a sign of Russia's resurgence in interplanetary exploration. The 13-ton spacecraft reached Earth orbit, but it did not fire its engines as scheduled to start its months-long cruise toward the Red Planet.

Since then, Russian controllers have been struggling to contact the probe, aided by ESA as well as NASA. On Tuesday, the Interfax news agency quoted Russia's deputy space chief, Vitaly Davydov, as saying that "chances to accomplish the mission are very slim."

Then ESA said its tracking station in Perth, Australia, made contact with the probe late Tuesday (around 20:25 GMT, or 3:25 p.m. ET).

ESA explained on its website that the job was particularly challenging because it was hard to get a precise fix on the spacecraft for a narrow-beam transmission, and because Phobos-Grunt's antenna was optimized to receive low-power transmissions in deep space.

"In the past few days, ESA's Perth dish was modified by the addition of a 'feedhorn' antenna at the side of the main dish so as to transmit very low-power signals over a wide angle in the hopes of triggering a response from the satellite," the space agency said.

The response came in the form of a simple confirmation from the probe that it had executed commands to switch on its transmitter.

Second contact
Later Wednesday, ESA spokesman Rene Pischel reported that the Perth station received useful telemetry from Phobos-Grunt during a subsequent pass.

"We have again established contact with the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, we obtained telemetry reports, they are being analyzed by our colleagues from the Lavochkin Research and Production Association," the RIA Novosti news service quoted Pischel as saying.

RIA Novosti said the contact lasted only six minutes, and more data would probably be required to diagnose Phobos-Grunt's problem. NPO Lavochkin, the probe's prime developer, has been in charge of making the diagnosis.

If the probe can be revived, NBC News space analyst James Oberg said it could rank as "the biggest 'space rescue' since Apollo 13, Skylab and the iceberg space station Salyut 7."

Now what?
It's not clear what options are still available for continuing Phobos-Grunt's mission. Some reports from Russia have suggested that the opportunity for a round trip to Phobos and back has already been lost. Davydov, however, said Russian engineers had until the end of the month to fix the probe's engines and send it on a path to Phobos.

Russian scientists could fix the problem if the probe failed because of a software flaw, but some experts think that the failure was rooted in hardware that's difficult to fix.

Even if Phobos-Grunt could no longer execute its sample return mission, it could still conceivably take on a one-way trip to Mars and its moon, or head for a different destination, such as Earth's moon or an asteroid. That assumes, of course, that Phobos-Grunt's onboard systems can be fully revived.

If the mission fails, that could affect Russia's priorities for space research. The Russian space agency would more likely focus on moon research instead of studying Mars, Davydov said.

Davydov said that if engineers can't take control of the spacecraft, it could crash to Earth sometime between late December and late February. The site of the crash cannot be established more than a day in advance, he said.

"If you calculate the probability of it hitting somebody on the head, it is close to zero," he said.

More about Mars:

This report includes information from msnbc.com and The Associated Press.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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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