The Russian Mars mission Phobos-Grunt has made a surprise announcement: she’s alive. According to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Twitter feed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, a tracking station in Perth, Australia, picked up a signal from the ailing spacecraft: Within minutes, the promised news appeared on the agency’s website:
On Tuesday, 22 November at 20:25 UT, ESA’s tracking station at Perth, Australia, established contact with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. This was the first signal received on Earth since the Mars mission was launched on 8 November. ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communications with the spacecraft. More news will follow later.
This is obviously a surprise, especially as the 13-ton probe hasn’t signaled ground stations at all since itslaunch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 8. Soon after launch, it became clear that the upper stage engine had malfunctioned and the probe was stranded in low-Earth orbit rather than coasting its way to Mars. For a long period, Russian space officials remained silent, and the only news on the fate of the spacecraft came from other space agencies, amateur astronomers and leaks from individuals within the Russian space industry.
On Tuesday (Nov. 22), Roscosmos broke its silence and confirmed that there was “little chance” of salvaging the mission. But after Wednesday morning’s dramatic turn of events, is there a tiny glimmer of hope that if communications with the probe can commence, perhaps the mission isn’t doomed after all? That might be a bit of a stretch — after all, no one is sure what the problem is; whether it’s a software glitch or complete hardware failure. There is no way to know if communications will continue, or whether the Perth ground station was lucky. But one thing is for certain, something is ticking inside the onboard electronics of Phobos-Grunt, perhaps it’s the leverage Russian engineers need to gain access and correct the problem.