PARIS — Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft remains stranded in low Earth orbit, and if engineers are unable to salvage the Mars-bound mission by December, the robotic probe is expected to burn up on re-entry and pose no danger to Earth, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos said Nov. 14.

“There is no doubt that the device will explode when entering the atmosphere,” Vladimir Popovkin, general director of Roscosmos, says in a statement posted on the agency’s website.

Roscosmos engineers have been working against the clock to salvage the Phobos-Grunt mission, an unmanned probe designed to return samples from a moon of Mars. It has been stuck in a parking orbit since its Nov. 9 launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. So far, Russian controllers have failed to establish contact with the $163 million spacecraft, leaving little hope of recovering the ambitious mission that was to reaffirm Russia’s leading edge in space exploration.

Popovkin says engineers have until December to make contact with Phobos-Grunt, but that because the spacecraft is flying in an “abnormal trajectory” it is only capable of communicating with ground control stations in 7-min. intervals.

“We cannot get the telemetry to understand what happened,” he says. However, Popovkin stresses that ”all systems of the spacecraft are functioning normally and it is oriented to the Sun.” Popovkin adds that rumors that the robotic probe suffers from engineering or design flaws are unfounded.