It sounds like a storyline lifted straight from the plot of a James Bond movie: The Russians launch a probe to Mars but, inexplicably, the spacecraft goes silent just as it reaches Earth orbit. Scratching their heads, Russian officials start eying their old Cold War foes, suspicious the US may be to blame… [Cut scene to a chuckling bald man stroking a white cat. Opening 007 credits roll.]
As unlikely as it may sound, this is exactly what Russian officials are alleging in the wake of Sunday’s reentry of the Phobos-Grunt Mars sample return mission over the Pacific Ocean (the bald man and white cat were added for dramatic effect).
Though the exact region of reentry is still a little ambiguous, Yury Koptev, the head of the scientific committee of state technology company Russian Technologies, wasn’t ambiguous as to where the blame lies: “To test (the theory), an equipment block similar to the one on Phobos-Grunt will be exposed to radiation from the possible unintentional exposure to American radars.”
“… unintentional exposure to American radars”? Who the hell would accidentally zap a Russian spacecraft with a radar?
The blame seems to be settling on a US asteroid radar tracking facility based on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
“There is a possibility that the (probe) accidentally entered the area covered by the radar, which resulted in a failure of its electronics caused by a megawatt impulse,” a space industry source told the Russian Kommersant newspaper. “After that, it could no longer give a command to switch on the Phobos propelling system.”
Only last week, the Russian space agency chief hinted around the possibility that Phobos-Grunt may have succumbed to foreign interference, adding that Russian launches seem to suffer mishaps when traveling over the Western hemisphere. “I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude,” Vladimir Popovkin told the Russian media.
The fact remains that the reasons for the Phobos-Grunt loss are far from understood. The Russian space agency Roscosmos originally believed there was some computer malfunction shortly after its Nov. 9 launch, preventing the probe from communicating with mission control, but this was later ruled out as the solar arrays had opened and onboard batteries appeared to be charging. Then a short circuit was thought to be the culprit.
These most recent allegations leveled at an “accidental” exposure to powerful radar transmissions from the ground raise some puzzling questions, the key one being: Why did the Phobos-Grunt orbit take it over an active, and well-known, radar installation?
Even if it was a necessity, why didn’t Roscosmos work with the US to make sure the installation was switched off shortly after the Phobos-Grunt launch? Or was the probe’s orbit already off-course, causing it to accidentally drift into the radar transmission?
Also, although it is conceivable that powerful radar transmissions may interfere with spacecraft operations, why wasn’t the spacecraft’s electronics better protected?
These allegations pose more questions than answers and there is currently no proof for their extraordinary claims. Sadly, the Russian space industry has been rocked by a series of recent failures, so this episode is sounding more like they need to divert attention away from an obviously troubled infrastructure and less about “foreign interference.”
Image credit: Roscosmos