Russian Space Authorities Determine Cause of Failed Mars Probe: America

Western meddling--rather than Roscosmos--may be to blame for Phobos-Grunt disaster, says Roscosmos

Phobos-Grunt in Space

Thierry Legault

The head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos--you know, the one that hasn't enjoyed a lot of success lately--isn't sure exactly why Russia's doomed Phobos-Grunt mission failed to fire its engines and escape Earth's orbit on a trajectory for Mars. But he's got a theory: it's the West's fault. At least, that seems to be the between-the-lines meaning of a statement made to the Russian newspaper Izvestia.

"I do not want to blame anyone, but these days there are very powerful means to influence space vehicles," Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Izvestia, adding "we do not understand frequent failures of our space vehicles when they fly over the shadow, for Russia, part of the Earth. Right there we are unable to see the vehicle and to receive its telemetry."

The shadow for Russia, of course, is the other side of the planet (read: North America, or possibly Europe). And naturally Popovkin isn't the first to suggest that the Phobos-Grunt failure might be the result of external meddling. Back in November, a retired Russian general who was once chief of the country's ballistic missile early warning system told the Interfax news agency that American radar sites in Alaska were the cause of Phobos-Grunt's failure.

"The powerful electromagnetic radiation of those sites may have affected the control system of the interplanetary probe," General-Lieutenant Nikolay Rodionov said at the time. He was referring, presumably, to the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) site near Gakona, Alaska, an ionospheric research facility run by the U.S. Navy and Air Force (and DARPA, among other research institutions) that has been blamed for everything from earthquakes to weather events to the downing of TWA flight 800.

Of course, someone's got to take the blame, and no one wants to be that someone. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already said he wants to seek punishment for those responsible for the Phobos-Grunt debacle, saying "I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment." No wonder everyone is so eager to pass the buck.

More diplomatically, Popovkin did admit that Phobos-Grunt was a hastily launched mission. Some technological risks were taken with the program, he said, and since some of parts aboard the probe were approaching their expiration dates, the mission had to go to Mars in 2011 or not at all. The result was a mission that was rushed to the launchpad.