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Duff Mars probe team sweats under Medvedev menaces

Phobos-Grunt relapses into silence

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Lost Martian probe Phobos-Grunt has gone back to its silent orbiting again, remaining unresponsive to Russian space agency attempts to contact it on Monday night.

Roscosmos was trying to order the module to raise its orbit, but the probe didn't respond, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

"The sessions, which have been taken to issue commands to increase the altitude of the probe, did not lead to positive results," a Roscosmos spokesperson said.

He added that the agency would double its efforts.

The boffins want to lift Phobos-Grunt's orbit because it would increase the window of opportunity during which earth-to-space communication centres can reach it.

At the moment, the craft is in a low orbit with a perigee of around 200km and an apogee of 300km, giving a period of visibility of around six to seven minutes for ground stations beneath its track.

Extending the communication time would give the space experts more of a chance to exchange information with the craft, issuing commands and getting telemetry data.

The European Space Agency, which first contacted the probe last week, also had a few shots at sending the command at night, but the results are still unknown.

An ESA spokesperson was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Phobos-Grunt has been trapped in a useless orbit around Earth since 8 November, when it launched successfully, but its engines failed to send it on its way to Mars.

The probe should have flown to the Red Planet, orbited a few times while dropping off its Chinese passenger, the Yinghuo-1 satellite, and then continued on to Martian moon Phobos to land and collect soil samples.

Instead, it has been circling the Earth while Russian and European space boffins have scrambled to try to contact it, discover why its engines failed to fire and get it working again. Although it's too late now for Phobos-Grunt to make it to Mars, it could still fly to Earth's Moon or to a near-earth asteroid.

And just in case the Russian space engineers aren't feeling enough pressure, their president, Dmitry Medvedev, has said he is mulling criminal prosecution for the poor buggers.

"Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty," Medvedev told reporters in televised comments.

"I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment," he said. ®

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