Russia's space chief says failures may be sabotage

Jan 10, 2012 By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV , Associated Press
In this Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011 file photo, the Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Ground probe blasts off from its launch pad at the Cosmodrome Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Some of the recent failures of Russian spacecraft may have been caused by hostile interference, Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said. Popovkin made the comment when asked about the failure of the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of the Mars twin moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. The spacecraft is expected to fall to Earth around Jan. 15. (AP Photo/Oleg Urusov, Pool, File)

(AP) -- Some recent Russian satellite failures may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, Russia's space chief said Tuesday, in comments apparently aimed at the United States.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any specific country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview in the daily Izvestia he said some Russian craft had suffered "unexplained" malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation's tracking facilities.

Popovkin spoke when asked about the failure of the $170-million unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of Mars' two moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. Engineers in Russia and the have failed to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, and it is expected to fall back to Earth around Jan. 15.

spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin's comments, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed that foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country's satellites.

Popovkin said modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influences.

"I wouldn't like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can't be excluded," he said.

James Oberg, a veteran who has written books on the Russian space program and now works as a space consultant, said Popovkin's comments were a sad example of the Russian cultural instinct to 'blame foreigners.'

"It's a feature of trajectories that orbital adjustments must be made halfway around the first orbit to circularize and stabilize subsequent orbits," Oberg said in e-mailed comments.

"The Russians must know that simple geography - not evildoers lurking in shadows - dictate where their communications 'blind spots' are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong," he said.

The failed Phobos mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country's space industries and raised pressure on Popovkin. officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging work force.

Popovkin also said in 2013, Russia will launch three new communications satellites that will be able to retransmit signals from other Russian spacecraft as they fly over another hemisphere.

A retired Russian general alleged last November that the Phobos-Ground might have been incapacitated by a powerful U.S. radar. Nikolai Rodionov, who previously was in charge of Russia's early warning system, was quoted as saying that a powerful electromagnetic impulse generated by U.S. radar in Alaska might have affected the probe's control system.

Popovkin said experts have so far failed to determine why the Phobos-Ground probe's engines failed to fire, but admitted the program had suffered from funding shortages that led to some "risky technological solutions."

The spacecraft was supposed to collect soil samples on Phobos and fly them back to Earth in one of the most challenging unmanned interplanetary missions ever. It was Russia's first foray beyond the Earth since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.

Scientists had hoped that studies of Phobos' surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's a piece of debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

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User comments : 11

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Malyuta_Skuratov
5 / 5 (4) Jan 10, 2012
Yep, let's fight the global warming with an appropriately cold war.
Callippo
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 10, 2012
It's always easier to cover incompetence with accusation of some hidden/external enemy. On the graphs bellow are comparison of success rate of USA and Russian spaceprobes of Mars.

http://www.aether...tory.gif
Callippo
not rated yet Jan 10, 2012
Background data of this statistics, if someone is interested about it (in Czech only, sorry). In the light of these statistics the poor Phobos-Ground probe had only 16% chance of success.

http://www.aether...ory1.gif
Xbw
1.7 / 5 (12) Jan 10, 2012
An ancient demotivational poster once said, "The secret to success is knowing who to blame".
Blakut
not rated yet Jan 10, 2012
Yeah, they're trying to cover their asses allright. But they don't have who to blame specifically. How could one disable their software remotely?
Callippo
not rated yet Jan 10, 2012
The interesting thing is, the Russian managed missions are substantially more reliable - which is somehow surprising with respect to the size and much higher complexity of managed flights. Well, one could said, when the Americans are on the board, the HAARP radars are dimmed for sure..
kevinrtrs
2.7 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2012
"The Russians must know that simple geography - not evildoers lurking in shadows - dictate where their communications 'blind spots' are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong," he said.

Strange how the Russians seem to have been quite successful in their other launches. I'm sure they were aware of the need to adjust orbits, otherwise they'd have to be simpletons.
I must confess I also strongly suspected outside interference the day that the news was announced. I still do, because the Russians have far too much experience with more critical missions to slip up so badly - in spite of "new technological risks".
BenjaminButton
not rated yet Jan 11, 2012
@kevinrtrs: True the Russians have experience but the man said himself that their space agency has for a long time suffered serious funding shortages. The Phobos- grunt probe also cost a mere $170 million...that's pennies compared to what NASA spend on their missions. How is it unreasonable to assume that an underfunded space agency plagued by a paranoid propagandist govt. which vilifies it's scientists on a regular basis would eventually see a series of major errors?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 11, 2012
On the other hand: given the latest string of misshaps it would be foolhardy NOT to think in the direction of Sabotage - at least as one of several possibilities.

This statement may just be a test-balloon. Trying to povoke some telling reaction from a possibly guilty party (US, China, ... )
yyz
5 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2012
"Trying to povoke some telling reaction from a possibly guilty party (US, China, ... )"

Wouldn't that make the US and/or China incredibly clever (or really stupid), seeing both countries had experiments aboard Phobos-Grunt!

http://en.wikiped...periment

http://en.wikiped...inghuo-1
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jan 11, 2012
Just for the sake of argument (i.e. let's just hypothesize it was sabotage for the moment)

There are a lot of possible parties that could have an interest in doing so. Nation states are just one of them. Fledgeling commercial carriers may also be involved. Heck, it could even be some rival faction withing Roskosmos that wants to take it over.

As for the experiments aboard the craft: Such cooperation happens on the level of NASA/Roskosmos - not on a political level. Political agendas may be at odds (and often are) with scientific ones. We shouldn't assume that any nation is so streamlined so as to expect that every part of its apparat knows (and supports) everything every other part does.