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Russian boffins: US radar didn't fry Phobos-Grunt

Megawatt ray-gun not to blame for Martian probe fiasco

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Russian boffins have pooh-poohed the theory that duff Martian moon probe Phobos-Grunt failed to leave Earth's orbit because it had been knackered by US radar.

Yesterday, news website RIA Novosti reported that a Russian government commission scrutinising the fiasco was mulling whether or not US radars interfered with the craft - intentionally or not.

The investigators want to subject a mock Phobos-Grunt to radiation similar to American detection gear's emissions to see if that would gum up its works.

“The results of the experiment will allow us to prove or dismiss the possibility of the radars’ impact,” commission head and former top dog at Roscosmos Yury Koptev said.

Current head of the space agency Vladimir Popovkin had already intimated that the Russians weren't ruling out the possibility of some sort of foreign influence in the failure of the probe.

"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 said.

Phobos-Grunt, launched in November, was supposed to head over to Mars, orbit for a while, go on to the Red Planet's moon Phobos and land, pick up samples and then return to Earth. Instead it stalled in Earth's orbit when its engines failed to fire.

One source cast particular aspersions on a US radar stationed on the Marshall Islands "whose megawatt impulse triggered the malfunctioning of onboard electronics", although they said it was more likely to be an accident than sabotage. Later the same day, RIA Novosti had found a few Russian scientists who reckoned the theory that Phobos-Grunt failed because of a US radar was pretty "exotic".

“Consider the power of the impact. I don’t think the Americans have radars capable of ensuring such power at such an altitude [about 200 kilometers],” protested Alexander Zakharov of the Russian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute, which developed the probe's equipment and research programme.

“I simply think that is disingenuous. It is convenient to find the cause of the failure on the outside,” he said, adding that “external impact hypotheses” were “far-fetched”.

“The spacecraft itself should be examined first. There are problems there,” he said.

Viktor Savorsky, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Radio Technology and Electronics agreed with Zakharov: “The electronic equipment [of spacecraft] is usually protected very well against radiation and sheltered against external fields."

It wouldn't be too surprising if the boffins involved with the project were looking for some sort of external and uncontrollable factor to explain away the failed Mars mission, since their president, Dmitry Medvedev, more or less said "Off with their heads!" over the whole thing.

"Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty," Medvedev said on the telly back in November last year.

"I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment," he added.

Meanwhile, over in the States, NASA is refusing to comment on the US radar theory. The agency referred reporters to the State Department for further questions, although previously, someone from NASA said that the radar on Marshall Islands supposedly responsible for the megawatt impulse wasn't in use the day Phobos-Grunt was launched.

A more prosaic reason for the dud Martian probe is also doing the rounds, appearing on the forum of Russian magazine Novosti Kosmonavtiki and repeated on website Russian Space Web.

In that version of events, the problems on Phobos-Grunt were the result of a simple but ultimately fatal software bug. Apparently, testing on the model probe revealed that in 90 per cent of cases the processor of the main flight control computer could become overloaded, leading it to crash and reboot.

When the ground teams, desperate to contact the craft, eventually managed to get the probe to turn on its deep-space transmitter to talk to them, they signed its death warrant. Operating the device took a lot of power, and the probe wasn't turning the thing off when it went out of range so it slowly drained its batteries and then died on November 28. ®

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