Russia’s Space Chief Says Failures May Be Sabotage

By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV | January 11, 2012

Some of the recent failures of Russian satellites may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, the nation’s space chief said.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview published Tuesday in the daily Izvestia he said some Russian craft had suffered “unexplained” malfunctions while flying beyond the reach of his nation’s tracking facilities.

Popovkin said he didn’t want to proportion blame, but modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influence.

“I wouldn’t like to accuse anyone, but today there exist powerful means allowing to influence spacecraft, and their use can’t be excluded,” he said.

Popovkin added that in 2013 Russia will launch three new communications satellites that would be able to retransmit signals from other spacecraft as they fly over another hemisphere.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin’s statement, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country’s satellites.

Popovkin made the comment when asked about the failure of the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of the Mars twin moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch.

Engineers in Russia and the European Space Agency have failed to propel its toward its target, and the spacecraft is expected to fall to Earth around Jan. 15.

Popovkin said that experts so far had failed to determine why the probe’s engines failed to fire, but admitted that the program had suffered from funding shortages that led to some “risky technological solutions.”

The $170-million craft was supposed to collect soil samples on Phobos and fly them back to Earth in one of the most challenging unmanned interplanetary missions ever. It was Russia’s first foray beyond the Earth orbit since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.

Scientists had hoped that studies of Phobos’ surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, while others think it’s a piece of debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

The failed mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country’s space industries and raised heat on Popovkin. Space officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging workforce.

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