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25 Sep, 2007 18:03

"Space mail" lost in post?

Just hours remain until the Foton M3 research satellite returns to Earth. For the past two weeks it has hosted many experiments in weightless conditions, although not all of them have been successful.

Springing off the Foton M3 satellite, a capsule dubbed “Fotino” was meant to stretch away from the mothership, while still connected by a 30-kilometer tether. If everything had gone according to plan, it would then have used the bigger capsule to position itself in the Earth's orbit. Then the thread would have been be cut and the “space mail” would have re-entered the atmosphere.

However, during the experiment the tether failed to deploy far enough, so that now the parcel from space is orbiting the Earth and no one knows when or where it will land.

Yet the scientist behind the project refuses to call it a failure.

“The way we in the YES-2 team feel is that it's gone reasonably well. YES-2 is a student experiment and it's testing a new concept for a space mission for the first time,” Roger Walker notes.

Despite the setback, the technology retains its potential.

“A real operational system could have benefits for returning microgravity samples from space stations, for instance, at a lower cost than using conventional means such as retro rockets,” Roger Walker believes.

The YES-2 experiment may have been the most spectacular of all planned on the Foton M3, but there were more than forty others.

Biologists have sent a Noah's Ark of life forms, from micro-organisms to gerbils, to see if they can survive in weightlessness and to examine how space radiation affects them.

Samples of an African freshwater fish, the tilapia, were fertilised before being sent aboard the Foton M3, where their eggs have hatched. When they return to Earth their offspring will be compared with a control group.

Scientists may also be able to understand how life might spread between planets.

Some rocks covered with micro-organisms have been placed on the outside of the capsule to see if they can survive during re-entry into the atmosphere.

The scientists have been able to directly monitor some of the experiments during the mission itself.

“I can say already that now we have the first feedback from the experiments and from the scientists that the Foton M3 mission is a success,” says Josef Winter from the European Space Agency.

However the results of other experiments will take months to process and depend on the safe return of the research capsule.

With the Fotino experiment only a partial success, staff at Mission Control will be hoping that the landing of the Foton M3 will go more smoothly.