Cosmic Rays Probably Killed Russian Mars Probe

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So it turns out that U.S. radars didn’t zap the botched Russian Mars sample return mission. It was actually the universe that conspired against Phobos-Grunt, knocking out its onboard electronics with some high-energy particles, known as cosmic rays.

“The most likely reason in the commission’s opinion is the local influence of heavy charged particles from outer space on the onboard computer system,” said Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday. “Two components of the onboard computer system were spontaneously rebooted and it switched into a standby mode.”

ANALYSIS: Mars-bound Rover Feels Wrath of Sun’s Radiation

On Nov. 9, 2011, the unmanned Phobos-Grunt blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. However, it soon became apparent that something wasn’t right. The upper stage of the probe’s rocket failed to fire, preventing it from leaving Earth orbit.

Very early on, bizarre accusations of U.S. conspiracies were bandied around by Russian officials as to the cause of the Phobos-Grunt failure, but as many suspected, there was a far more likely cause to the probe’s demise.

When satellites are hit by high-energy particles from deep space or the sun, sometimes the sensitive electronics can be affected. As a precaution to avoid further damage or total systems failure, the hardware may switch into a “safe mode” state. This happens with some frequency, especially on spacecraft outside of the Earth’s protective magnetic field.

For example, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has had several outages caused by safe modes being triggered by solar particles while in Martian orbit.

ANALYSIS: Zombiesat Attack! Solar Storm Fries Satellite’s Brain

However, something unexpected appears to have happened to Phobos-Grunt when its systems switched into safe mode, causing it to tumble lifelessly (and silently, for the most part) in orbit until fiery reentry over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile on Jan. 15.

Although cosmic rays have been cited as the likely cause of mission failure, Popovkin also wanted to blame faulty imported microchips. “The use of imported microchips is not only our problem,” he said, pointing out that NASA and the U.S. Defense Department have been concerned about illegal imports of computer parts.

ANALYSIS: Did the U.S. Kill the Ill-Fated Russian Mars Probe?

Whether dodgy chips or cosmic rays are to blame, the investigation rules out any “external or foreign influence” on the spacecraft. Silly accusations of deliberate satellite shootdowns by HAARP and accidental radar zappings by a U.S. asteroid tracking facility in the Pacific have been put to rest.

Hopefully, Russia can now focus on the real, and very serious, problems plaguing their space industry.

Image credit: Roscosmos

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