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Rogue Russian Mars probe communicates - but in gibberish

Experts mull mission to asteroid or Moon instead of Mars

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The European Space Agency managed to get telemetry data from lost Martian probe Phobos-Grunt last night, but hasn’t been able to decode the messages.

The ESA made three attempts at communication with the stranded spacecraft overnight, but just one of the tries was successful, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

The Russian ship was able to send telemetry data in that communication, but unfortunately, the experts can’t decode it, a source in the space industry said.

That source claimed that, in typical over-secretive Big-Brother style, the probe’s default setting is to send data in an encrypted form. Because of problems with decoding when the information was sent, the ESA is now going to have to try again to reach the probe and get it to resend the telemetry in an unencrypted form.

But other reports suggest that the message was just garbled and incomplete and that’s why they can’t figure it out.

Either way, the Russians are still none the wiser about why the craft’s engines failed to fire and send it on its mission to Mars and the Martian moon Phobos.

The telemetry data should help the space boffins figure out the state of on-board control system, which would tell them whether or not the probe could still be used for some alternative mission.

The head of the ESA in Russia, Rene Pishel, told the news agency that he wasn’t sure if other attempts to contact the craft would be made tonight.

“We are discussing plans for further action with our Russian colleagues,” Pishel said.

Hopes for contacting Phobos-Grunt, which has been lost in Earth’s orbit since 9 November, were almost lost when the ESA’s earth-to-space communication centre in Perth, Australia, made contact with probe overnight on Tuesday.

While it’s now too late to send the ship on its original mission, alternatives, such as visiting Earth’s moon or landing on a near-Earth asteroid, have been put forward by various experts.

On Tuesday, Vitaly Davydov, the deputy head of Russian space agency Roscosmos lent some weight to the possibility of a Moon expedition by saying that “it would be reasonable to focus” on it.

However, today, Phobos-Grunt chief boffin Alexander Zakharov of the Space Research Institute said a near-Earth asteroid mission could be a better option.

“Research of an asteroid is more reminiscent of our initial task than Moon research. [The Martian moon] Phobos itself is more like an asteroid and scientific equipment was made for that purpose," he said.

"If we assume that the spacecraft may be reanimated... then we may choose some near-earth asteroid and send the spacecraft there," he said. "However, such mission requires extensive preparations. We would have to calculate the orbit and study energy issues, it would take months." ®

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