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International community makes last-ditch attempt to save Russian space probe

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"We are trying to help them out of trouble," said Wolfgang Hell, the service manager who is overseeing the European Space Agency's support to Russia's NPO Lavochkin, the main contractor on the Phobos-Grunt project. Hell is based at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

"Normally, we were supposed to step in, so to speak, and provide tracking services with our ground station network once the spacecraft was on an escape trajectory to Mars," Hell told "It was never planned that we would support the spacecraft while in the near-Earth phase."

Hell said that his Russian colleagues have gained a better understanding of what ails the spacecraft. "They reached the conclusion that they have some kind of power problem onboard. So they have become more specific in terms of what we should be doing to help them."

But that help embraces a number of challenges, Hell said.

For instance, the spacecraft risks running out of electrical power each time the probe is eclipsed as it spins around Earth. Commanding Phobos-Grunt , therefore, is possible only while it's facing the sun.

Also, due to a lack of downlink from the craft's onboard transponder, ground trackers must rely on imprecise radar-tracking data. Not knowing exactly where the spacecraft is makes pointing ground transmitting antennas correctly a challenge.

"It takes a lot of luck to really hit the spacecraft with a main beam," Hell said. "Because it's in such a low-Earth orbit … we have so little time, something like six to eight minutes, to get the command up."

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