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The chief of the Russian space agency has assured the public that the stalled and uncommunicative Mars probe Phobos-Grunt will not smash into a populated area of Earth.

Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos, told reporters that if the wayward spacecraft re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, which he believes is still the worst-case scenario, it won't harm anyone.

“There are 7.5 metric tons of fuel in the aluminium tanks on board. We have no doubts that they will explode [and destroy the probe] upon re-entry,” Popovkin said, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. “It is highly unlikely that its parts would reach Earth.”

The chances of contacting the craft are dwindling however and the space agency is giving the rescue attempt until the beginning of December to succeed.

Phobos-Grunt has been stranded in low-Earth orbit since it launched successfully on 9 November, but its engines failed to get it going on its mission to Mars. The probe was supposed to fly to the Red Planet, go around it for a few months and then land on Martian moon Phobos to collect samples before returning to Earth in 2014.

Instead, it has been circling our home world while engineers attempt to contact it and establish why it didn't fire its engines to send it on course to Mars. The astroboffins hope there's still a chance to get the probe on its way.

However, none of the attempts to get a signal to or from the spacecraft have been successful.

“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,” Popovkin said.

The major problem is how few earth-to-space communication stations there are. Engineers have to sit around until Phobos-Grunt passes over one and then they have a small window in which to send and receive signals.

Space boffins have now reduced the power of the signal they're sending up, because the craft is so much lower than it's meant to be, and are trying to lengthen the communication window.

Popovkin said losing the probe "would be a disappointment", but the Russian space programme would go on at pace.

“As to Mars - it is a planet that does not like earthlings. Only 30 per cent of Soviet-Russian launches to Mars were successful, the Americans have had 50 per cent success, while all attempts by Japan and Europe have failed so far,” he sniffed. ®

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