Phobos Grunt, the Russian Mars probe that's been stuck in a precipitously low Earth orbit for a fortnight, has finally been contacted by a European Space Agency ground station in Perth, Australia. It is unclear, however, if this means the craft and its intricate Martian soil-sampling mission can be rescued.
The spacecraft was launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on 8 November on an ambitious mission to sample soil from the Martian moon Phobos - and return it to Earth. But Phobos Grunt's main engines did not fire to project it out of Earth orbit to Mars - and this was compounded by an inability to contact the craft to reprogram the computers that fire those engines when the craft is correctly oriented.
ESA's feat in re-establishing contact on Tuesday 22 November, at 2025 GMT, now offers some hope that that can be done. "ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft," the space agency says on its website. Russian news agency Ria Novosti said ground stations in French Guyana, the Canary Islands and Spain will most likely be used to maintain contact with, and regain control of, Phobos Grunt.
Even if control is re-established it is unclear if the full sample return mission as planned can be rescued. The official window for a return mission to Earth closed yesterday - which could leave the craft performing Phobos surface experiments only.