Europe gets signal from Russia's Mars moon probe

November 23, 2011 - 6:55 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — The European Space Agency has received the first signal from an unmanned spacecraft bound for moon of Mars since it got stuck in Earth's orbit.

The ESA, which has been helping Russia to try to communicate with the errant probe, said in a statement Wednesday that its tracking facility in the Australian city of Perth established contact with the spacecraft late Tuesday.

Russia's space agency Roscosmos said Russian and European space experts will coordinate further attempts to contact the Phobos-Ground probe.

The $170 million craft has become stranded in orbit after its thrusters failed to fire after the Nov. 9 launch to send it to one of Mars' two moons, Phobos. The ESA's success in picking up signal from the probe has raised hope that engineers could prevent its uncontrollable plunge to Earth.

If the ESA manages to receive systems data from the craft, that may allow experts to determine the cause of the failure and then try to send commands that could prevent the probe from crashing back to Earth.

Roscosmos' deputy chief, Vitaly Davydov, said Tuesday that space experts will keep trying until the end of the month to try to fix the probe and steer it to its designated flight path. If they fail, the craft could plummet to Earth some time between late December and late February, he warned, adding that the site of the crash cannot be established more than a day in advance.

The spacecraft weighs 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons) with a highly toxic rocket fuel accounting for most of its weight. There have been concerns the fuel could freeze and spill on impact, although most experts believe it will likely stay liquid and burn up on re-entry.