Space radiation now blamed for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt failure

31 Jan 2012

Scientists working on the Phobos-Grunt probe before its take-off last November

The head of the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos has today suggested that the impact of ‘heavy charged space particles’ caused a programming glitch, resulting in the failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe in November. The probe had been destined for a two-year mission to Mars, but had failed to launch beyond the Earth’s low orbit. It crash landed in the Pacific Ocean on 15 January.

The report has been submitted to Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos.

A government commission in Russia has also released its report findings on the failed probe mission to Roscosmos today. It has ruled out any “external or foreign influence” – that’s according to a report on RiaNovosti.

The US$170m probe had been launched on 9 November from Baikonur Cosmodrome to explore one of Mars’ moons but failed to make it past the Earth’s low orbit shortly after its launch. As a result, the probe had been stuck in the Earth’s low orbit before it crash landed, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

The fallout of the Phobos-Grunt had whipped up much controversy, especially as the problem of space debris has come to the fore of late. Phobos-Grunt had been carrying 7.5 tonnes of toxic fuel. At the time, Roscosmos had indicated it expected the fuel would burn on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Russian space agency also said before the fall-out how it expected up to 30 pieces of the probe, weighing up to 200kg, to survive re-entry.

The failure of the probe to launch into space also ignited controversy, as Popovkin has alluded to the Russian newspaper Izvestia in early January that the probe might have been tampered with, outside of the Russian space agency’s control. He appeared to suggest potential hostile interference.

“I do not want to blame anyone, but these days there are very powerful means to influence space vehicles,” Popovkin told Izvestia at the time.

However, he did indicate the probe was most likely doomed from the start, due to limited funds and because expiration dates for some parts had been nearing.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic