PARIS — Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft remains stuck in low Earth orbit and ground teams have until early December to try to return it to operations before declaring the mission lost, the head of the Russia space agency, Roscosmos, said Nov. 14.

Vladimir Popovkin said it will not be known until December when the spacecraft — if it cannot be returned to service — will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, but that it will be sometime in January. He said it will almost certainly disintegrate as it enters the atmosphere without causing damage to people or property.

Popovkin said a more precise estimate of when Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere will be made when the craft’s perigee is 180 kilometers. Data from the U.S. Space Surveillance Network said the spacecraft was in an orbit with a perigee of 208 kilometers and an apogee of 333 kilometers.

Ending four days of silence about the probe, which was launched Nov. 8 on a mission to land on the martian moon Phobos and return samples, Popovkin said Russian ground teams continue to struggle to receive sufficient telemetry from Phobos-Grunt to determine what happened.

Because of its exceptionally low orbit, the satellite has direct telemetry contact with ground teams for sessions lasting only seven minutes.

Popovkin said Phobos-Grunt has correctly pointed itself to the sun to receive power and that it appears to be operating normally except for the fact that its on-board engines have not ignited to propel the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and on its way toward Mars.


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.