Good news, everyone: according to a statement from the Russian space agency Roscosmos, positive control has been reestablished over the agency's orbiting Foton-M4 satellite. Launched a week ago, Foton-M4 carries a primarily biological payload made up of geckos, flies, plant seeds, and various microorganisms.
The satellite made headlines late last week when just a few days after launch, ground control lost communication with the satellite and could no longer send it commands.
As of Saturday night, the crisis appears to be over, and Roscosmos can once again talk to Foton-M4. "The link is established, the prescribed commands have been conducted in accordance with the plan," confirmed Roscosmos chief official Oleg Nikolayevich Ostapenko. According to an additional quote from Ostapenko on RT.com, Roscosmos is sure that "90 percent" of the satellite's experiments are still viable.
That 90 percent includes Foton-M4's most famous residents: the zero-g sex geckos. The satellite's five-gecko crew—four females and one male—were sent aloft by Russian scientists in order to study the effects of microgravity on sex and reproduction. Scientists planned to monitor the festivities on video and then perform additional experiments when the satellite returned to Earth at the conclusion of its two-month mission.
Without ground control, Foton-M4 would remain in its 357-mile orbit for about four months—two months longer than the provisions for its biological payload would last. Geckos are opportunistic cannibals, so the bunch might be able to stretch their food supply out, but water and air would be more pressing problems. Ultimately, the uncontrolled atmospheric reentry would destroy the spacecraft and its cargo regardless of whether or not the geckos survived the extra months in space.
Now that the spacecraft is functioning normally, the scientists on lizard duty will be able to resume their experiments. While they do so, other Roscosmos personnel will try to figure out what caused the communication problem in the first place. According to RT.com and NBC News, it's possible that the satellite was struck by some manner of orbital debris.
This is definitely plausible: Foton-M4's altitude puts it in what's termed "low Earth orbit," or LEO, a region which stretches from about 100 miles above Earth's surface (about 160km) out to about 1,200 miles (about 2,000km). In addition to more than 500 active satellites and spacecraft (including the International Space Station, orbiting at about 250 miles or 400km), there are almost 20,000 objects larger than a few inches whizzing around in LEO. While NASA keeps a very vigilant eye on manned spacecraft like the ISS, it's possible that debris did indeed strike Foton-M4.
Roscosmos engineers will be able to complete their analysis in two months when Foton-M4 returns to Earth, along with five very tired geckos.