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Now Russians can't even contact their busted Mars probe

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Attempts to contact the lost Russian spaceship Phobos-Grunt have so far been unsuccessful, a source in the space industry said.

The unmanned craft has been lost in space since it managed to get into orbit around Earth on 9 November, but then failed to produce the two engine bursts that would have sent it on its mission to Mars.

"The spacecraft repeatedly passed over the Baikonur station and other Russian and foreign points of space communications during the night. There is no news yet," the source told Russian news agency RIA Novosti today.

Since it didn't manage to fire its engines, Phobos-Grunt is stuck in Earth's orbit and Russian space boffins have to 'chase' it across the skies to send and receive messages when it passes close enough to points on the global earth-to-space communications network.

Unfortunately, the engineers have a limited timeframe to try to figure out what went wrong with the probe and get it back on track to orbit the Red Planet and land on the Martian moon Phobos before its batteries run out.

Original estimates on the battery's lifespan gave it only several days, but Vladimir Popovkin, who heads up Roscosmos, said on Wednesday that the scientists had two weeks to restart the probe's booster before its batteries run out, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

However, other space agency workers have been less optimistic. A source at the Baikonur Cosmodrome told online newspaper Gazeta.ru that there was only 36 hours left to contact the spaceship, because after that power would be too low and "re-establish[ing] contact with the craft would be impossible", the source said (with the help of Google Translate).

Every time the craft completes an orbit, it loses both altitude and speed, so the chance of engineers stabilising the ship and getting it sent on its way are steadily decreasing.

Varying reports in the Russian media suggest the probe could fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere in the next few days – reports vary between 26 November and 3 December.

The craft is insured for 1.2 billion roubles (£24.7m) but its loss "would certainly be a big blow to the prestige" of the Russian Space Agency, Popovkin told Gazeta.ru. ®

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