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Busted Russian Mars probe could go to Moon instead

Phobos-Grunt to become Lunok-Grunt instead?

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Lost Russian probe Phobos-Grunt could give up its trek to Mars and instead head to the Moon if communication isn't established in the next few days.

Space agency Roscosmos has given engineers until 21 November to contact the spacecraft, which is somewhere in orbit around Earth, because a flight to the Red Planet's moon Phobos will not be possible after that date.

However, Russian space expert Igor Listov told state news agency RIA Novosti that if boffins got in touch with the ship after that it would still have enough fuel to make a trip to Earth's moon instead.

"I stress that this is all just wishful thinking, if we can establish contact with the craft," Listov said.

He believes that meaningful attempts to talk to the silent, stranded probe should continue up to the last possible moment, even if the chances of bringing it back to life are slim.

Just landing the craft, even if it didn't get to go anywhere, would retrieve the expensive equipment on board the probe for analysis, instead of blowing it up in a fiery ball along with the 7.5 metric tons of fuel in its tanks if it falls into re-entry uncontrolled.

That event is to be around the end of December or beginning of January, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin has said, assuming that the attempts to communicate fail.

Phobos-Grunt, intended for a mission to Mars and the Martian moon Phobos, including landing on its surface and collecting samples, stalled in Earth's orbit when its engines failed to send it on its way on November 9.

Russian space staff have been desperately trying to establish contact with the craft ever since, during the small windows of opportunity when it passes over an earth-to-space communication station. They still have no idea what happened to the probe or why its engines failed to fire. ®

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