Russia hints at U.S. radar role in Mars probe’s crash


A Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Ground probe blasts off from its launch pad in Kazakhstan in Novumber. The commission investigating the Russian probe failure suspects electromagnetic damage from U.S. radar. (AP)
January 17, 2012

Russian space officials are speculating that American radar may have zapped the failed Mars moon probe that fell into the ocean Sunday, a prominent Russian newspaper said Tuesday.

In Washington, NASA rejected the theory.

Russia has been trying to explain the spectacular and humiliating failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe ever since it got into trouble soon after its Nov. 9 launch.

On Tuesday, the authoritative Kommersant newspaper, quoting an unnamed individual, said a commission investigating the failure was considering whether the spacecraft was damaged by flying through powerful radar signals from a U.S. installation in the Marshall Islands that was alleged to be tracking an asteroid.

“There is a possibility that the station accidentally entered the area covered by the radar, which resulted in a failure of its electronics caused by a megawatt impulse,” an individual with the space industry said, according to Kommersant. “After that, it could no longer give a command to switch on the Phobos propelling system.”

Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman, said NASA scientists were not using the Marshall Islands radar on Nov. 9 to track an asteroid, as suggested by Russian space officials. Instead, the agency employed radar stations only in California and Puerto Rico, he said.

Outside experts called the theory unlikely. “It’s not radar,” said Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and president of the Mars Society. If radar could disable spacecraft, Zubrin said, “satellites would be dying all the time because they constantly pass over radar stations,” he said.

Zubrin pointed instead to problems inside the Russia space industry. “It’s slipshod quality control. Every one of their Mars probes has failed.”

On Tuesday evening, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted another unnamed Russian official who blamed the crash on “a software mistake and ensuing steps by ground services, which ran the batteries down completely.”

The person quoted — a member of the investigative commission, according to Interfax — said the main computer was overloaded and malfunctioned, preventing the spacecraft from reaching the orbit that would put it on course to Mars. Controllers tried to switch on the deep-space communications transmitter, the individual said, because the spacecraft did not have a close-range transmitter on board.

“This transmitter, consuming a lot of power, worked for a long time and discharged the batteries, but the ground services still failed to contact the spacecraft due to a high speed with which it was flying over ground stations,” the individual told Interfax. “The situation was further complicated by the fact that the spacecraft was in the shade for a long time and could not recharge its batteries.” Once the batteries were drained, the problems could not be fixed. That theory contradicted part of the account in Kommersant, which said experts had determined that the spacecraft’s solar batteries were turned on normally.

The idea of foreign interference was first floated by the head of the Roscosmos space agency, Vladimir Popovkin, who said last week that the probe might have been damaged by “a foreign technical facility.” The craft stopped responding to commands on its second orbit of Earth.

The United States has come in for a lot of blame in Russia recently; some government officials have accused it of paying the demonstrators who turned out to protest the December elections.

But James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller and an expert on the Russian space program, said radar interference does not seem likely. The U.S. Army radar station in the Marshall Islands routinely tracks every Russian space launch, Oberg said. “As far as I can tell, they have never accidentally or on purpose zapped a spacecraft. . . . It strikes me as astonishing that [radar operators] would forget to turn off the big zapper,” meaning the most powerful radar in the installation.

Decades ago, NASA astronauts reported hearing bursts of static in their headsets as they flew over the Soviet Union, caused by radar interference. But today, Oberg said, spacecraft should be shielded from such interference.

With the United States relying on Russia to launch NASA astronauts toward the international space station, Oberg said, he is “alarmed by this temptation to blame ‘foreign devils’ for domestic failures. . . . Our people’s safety depend on the maturity and rationality of their ability to troubleshoot problems.”

Russia’s space agency, Oberg said, has been “hair-trigger ready” in recent years to blame the space station’s U.S.-built electrical system for computer glitches that have occurred in the Russian segment of the station.

Investigators in Russia said they would use a model of the Phobos probe to test whether radiation could have damaged it, the RIA Novosti news service reported.

“The results of the experiment will allow us to prove or dismiss the possibility of the radars’ impact,” said Yuri Koptev, the former head of the Russian space agency who is directing the investigation.

Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister who said he would personally oversee the investigation, did not rule out the possibility of U.S. radar interference — even though so far there is no proof.

Bloggers quickly began demanding to know why Russia’s space agency would have launched the probe into an orbit that passed through U.S. radar.

lallyk@washpost.com

Staff writer Brian Vastag contributed to this report from Washington.

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