Skywatcher Has Photographed Troubled Russian Mars Probe

Skywatcher Ralf Vandebergh used a 10-inch telescope and a video camera to spot the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on November 29. He snapped a series of images at a range of about 170 miles (274 kilometers). Despite the distance, the photos capture the broad shape and structure of the probe. The Phobos-Grunt probe launched November 8 on a mission to grab samples of the Martian moon Phobos and return them to Earth in 2014. The spacecraft reached Earth orbit as planned, but got stranded there when its thrusters didn’t fire to send it zipping toward the Red Planet. Russia has been trying to establish contact with Phobos-Grunt for the last three weeks in an attempt to salvage the probe’s mission. 

But those efforts have been in vain. In a rare piece of good news, the European Space Agency announced last week that a ground station in Perth, Australia, had managed to pick up signals from the beleaguered spacecraft. Since then, however, repeated efforts to hail Phobos-Grunt and get it to fire its thrusters have failed, including another attempt yesterday. Even if Russian officials manage to regain control of the probe, it may be too little, too late.