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Did Someone Put Out a Cosmic Hit on Russia's Mars Probe?

It’s been more than two months since Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft failed to complete its mission of landing on Mars’ moon Phobos and returning with a soil sample.
January 18, 2012, 5:00am

It's been more than two months since Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft failed to complete its mission of landing on Mars' moon Phobos and returning with a soil sample. It first went silent in orbit; it’s since crashed into the Pacific. Now, the director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, is suggesting that something, or someone, sabotaged the mission.

Phobos-Grunt was launched successfully from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 9, 2011. But the next stage of the mission was hit with a major failure: the rockets designed to send the spacecraft on its interplanetary journey failed to ignite. Subsequent attempts to contact the spacecraft failed, and on November 24 the mission was declared a failure. At that point, even if it did wake up the positions of the planets were such that it couldn't have made the round trip for which is was designed.

Initially, the failure was chalked up to a flaw in the navigational computer. Popovkin has since suggested that the spacecraft's equipment might have broken down during its long storage period on the ground waiting for the launch opportunity. "If we had not sent it to Mars in 2011, we would have had to throw it away," he said of the craft in an interview earlier this month.

Popovkin added another piece to the puzzle with a statement suggesting the spacecraft was attacked and struck by an anti-satellite weapon. But he didn't say who would want to interfere with the mission.

So why point the finger at someone else at all? Spacecraft fail all the time, and Russia (as well as the former Soviet Union) has had terribly luck launching to Mars.
"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."

Shifting the blame could be in part a reaction to Phobos-Grunt's imminent to Earth, which is putting Russia in the hot seat. The 13-ton spacecraft has a fair amount of radioactive material on board, which caused people to panic about where the debris was going to fall, even though the odds on anyone being harmed were slim to none. It ended up in the ocean 700 miles west of Chile, according to a Russian spokesman.

This panic is likely adding to the embarrassment Roscosmos has suffered over the last year with a series of failures. GPS satellites failed to reach orbit in December 2010 and in February 2011. A communications satellite was lost after launch in August followed a week later by the loss of a cargo ship en route to the International Space Station.

Perhaps the statement is a reflection of recent anti-American sentiments in Russian politics and was really an attempt to rally a domestic audience. Popovkin didn't directly blame the United States, but he did imply the offending nation was on the opposite side of the globe. "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," he said.

The suggestion of US involvement has its roots in the comments of a former commander of Russia's missile warning system. He speculated in November 2011 that strong radar signals from outposts in Alaska could have damaged the spacecraft.

But it's unlikely the US tried to take out Phobos-Grunt. In the wake of the failure, NASA used its Deep Space Network antennas to try to re-establish contact with the Russian spacecraft. The US space agency withdrew its help late in November when it needed the antenna array to monitor its own Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Whatever the cause of the failure, the loss of the $160 million spacecraft and the prospect of a soil sample from one of Mars' moons is fairly devastating for scientists and space enthusiasts alike, regardless of nationality.