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.
Staff writer Brian Vastag contributed to this report from Washington.