Hopes dim for stranded Russian Mars probe

— -- A Russian spacecraft headed for a Martian moon remains stranded in a shrinking orbit just above Earth, raising fears that it soon could become the next spacecraft to make a fiery re-entry into our atmosphere.

Russia's Phobos-Grunt (grunt is Russian for ground or soil) mission took off Nov. 8 from a launch site in Kazakhstan. The 29,100-pound spacecraft, loaded with a Martian moon lander, a Chinese orbiter designed to study sandstorms and 8.3 tons of fuel, reached orbit around Earth but failed to fire the rocket that would send it on an eight-month trip to the Red Planet.

"There's still a spark of life. But we're not too optimistic," said project director Bruce Betts of The Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., which has a microbe experiment aboard Phobos-Grunt's moon lander. On Nov. 23, a European Space Agency tracking station in Australia reported brief contact with the errant spacecraft, with attempts continuing from a Canary Islands station as well.

"We estimate that Phobos-Grunt will fly until January," Russian space agency chief Vladamir Popovkin told Ria Novosti, the Russian state-run news agency. Recovery of radio control of the mission would have to come by early December for it to continue on to Mars, he said.

"NASA has been providing assistance in attempting to establish contact with Phobos-Grunt," NASA's Michael Braukus said in a statement. "We are continuing to work with Russia, as (are) a number of other space agencies."

Russia launched the spacecraft last month for the same reason that NASA successfully launched its $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory on Saturday — to take advantage of a fuel-efficient orbital alignment of Earth and Mars that comes every 26 months. The MSL Curiosity rover is expected to land Aug. 5 on Mars.

In contrast, Phobos-Grunt now circles Earth in an oval orbit 130 to 190 miles high, dropping a few miles a day, according to U.S. Strategic Command satellite tracking data. If contact with the spacecraft can be restored, controllers would first boost its orbit and then possibly, send it on to Mars.

If successfully restarted, Phobos-Grunt would place a soil-sampling lander on Phobos. A rocket capsule would return the sample from the moon — suspected of being an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars — to Earth. Betts said the soil-collecting capsule could conceivably land on Phobos and then wait out an extra 26 months before blasting off for Earth, moving its return from 2013 to 2016.

The spacecraft would also put China's Firefly craft, a magnetic field and sandstorm observer, into orbit around Mars.

If Phobos-Grunt can't be launched toward Mars, given the decay of the satellite's orbit, the spacecraft would likely fall from the sky in mid-January, the same fate as German and U.S. satellites that fell uncontrolled into the ocean this year.

"I hate to sound pessimistic but it's probably going to come down loaded with tons of fuel," said space law attorney Michael Listner. The crash location for Phobos-Grunt could fall anywhere above 55 degrees south latitude and below 55 degrees north latitude on Earth.

Russia has had bad luck on Mars missions, going 1 for 19 in past efforts, making Phobos-Grunt look like a long-shot.

"The Russians are like a former pro football player who hasn't played a game in a decade and then puts on his helmet and charges into an NFL game," said Dwayne Day, a senior space policy analyst at the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. "He will realize very quickly that he should have gone to a few practices first."