Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Russian Space Official Speculates on Anti-Satellite Attack on Probe

As the clock ticks down to the expected uncontrolled re-entry on Saturday of Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, a leading Russian space official has interjected the possibility that the craft may have been disabled by an orbiting anti-satellite weapon.

When Phobos-Grunt first went awry following its launch on November 9, 2011, Vladimir Popovkin, the director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos had initially said that a flawed navigational computer was likely at fault.

Popovkin’s latest allegation did not include speculation as to what nation may have wanted to disable the craft, which was to have sampled and returned soil from the Martian moon Phobos. The probe became stranded in earth orbit when its rockets failed to boost the craft out of orbit and onto a trajectory to Phobos.

Popovkin has also recently claimed that radar emissions from a facility in Alaska, presumably HAARP, may have damaged the craft.

According to the N.Y. Times:

Mr. Popovkin’s remarks to the newspaper Izvestia were the first high-level suggestion of nefarious interference. A retired commander of Russia’s missile warning system had speculated in November that strong radar signals from installations in Alaska might have damaged the spacecraft.

“We don’t want to accuse anybody, but there are very powerful devices that can influence spacecraft now,” Mr. Popovkin said in the interview. “The possibility they were used cannot be ruled out.”

Mr. Popovkin also suggested that equipment on the spacecraft may have broken down while the vehicle was stored on the ground, waiting for the time when Earth and Mars would be in the right places in their orbits for the mission to proceed, something that happens only every two years. “If we had not sent it to Mars in 2011, we would have had to throw it away,” he said of the craft.

The interview came at a time of rising anti-Americanism in Russian politics, and may have been intended mostly for a domestic audience. Russian officials often drop hints of foreign meddling, for example in stirring the recent street protests in Moscow; such comments are usually taken to mean the United States.

Mr. Popovkin’s remarks stood out in stark contrast to the cooperative spirit of recent Russian civilian space endeavors carried out in partnership with NASA, the European Space Agency and other foreign partners. Though Russia maintains a military wing of its space program, confrontation and even competition with the United States in space largely vanished with the end of the cold war.

The two powers called the space race a tie and agreed to build the International Space Station together; now that the American space shuttles are retired, NASA astronauts fly to the station aboard Russian rockets.

Mr. Popovkin did not directly implicate the United States in the interview. But he said “the frequent failure of our space launches, which occur at a time when they are flying over the part of Earth not visible from Russia, where we do not see the spacecraft and do not receive telemetric information, are not clear to us,” an apparent reference to the Americas.

Russia has not succeeded in sending a spacecraft to Mars since the 1980s. An attempt in 1996 to launch a Mars lander that could burrow below the planet’s surface failed because of a flaw in the rocket that carried it.

Phobos-Grunt, which took about five years to build and cost $160 million at current exchange rates, was launched from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan on Nov. 9; it also carried a small Chinese Mars orbiter.

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