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Foreign sabotage suspected in Phobos-Grunt meltdown

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The head of the Russian space agency has hinted that foreign sabotage might be to blame for the malfunction of the country's Martian space probe, Phobos-Grunt.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Russian newspaper Izvestia (in Russian, translation by Google Translate) that he had no complete explanation for the frequent failures of the agency's space projects, but he suggested Russia might not be entirely to blame.

"Today there is no clarity, why the propulsion unit onboard Phobos-Grunt failed to start," he said.

"It is also unclear, why our satellites often have failures at the time when they fly out of range [of Russian mission control] where we don't see the vehicle and do not receive telemetry from it. I don’t want to make any accusations, but today there is powerful equipment to influence spacecrafts, and the possibility of their use should not be ruled out,” he added.

Specifically in the case of Phobos-Grunt, Popovkin admitted that Roscosmos had pushed ahead with the project even though boffins at the agency knew there were risks.

He claimed that the lifespan of some of the parts used to build the probe, the construction of which began in 1999, were coming near to their expiration date. If Russia hadn't managed to launch the craft last year, it would have lost its five billion ruble ($159m) investment anyway.

"Phobos-Grunt was developed and built under conditions of limited funding, which predetermined risky technical decisions and made the whole mission problematic," Popovkin said.

“We became hostages of these decisions, since we had been bound by agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA), whose instruments were onboard, and to our Chinese colleagues as we undertook the task of delivering their satellite to Mars onboard Phobos-Grunt."

Phobos-Grunt was an ambitious project even with a big budget, but it never really got started. The probe was made to fly to Mars, orbit the planet for a few months and then land on the Martian moon Phobos to collect soil samples. Those samples were also supposed to make it all the way back to Earth in a return vehicle due in 2014.

Instead, after reaching Earth's orbit in early November, the craft's engines failed to fire and the duff probe was left to uselessly circle our home world.

Repeated attempts to contact Phobos-Grunt and get it back on some sort of track were ultimately useless, and the remains of the project are expected to rain down on our planet sometime around 15 January, according to the latest Russian estimates. ®

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