Thursday, January 12, 2012

Russia's Space Paranoia

The Russian space program faced a massive and embarrassing setback at the end of 2011 when their centerpiece Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars got stuck in low Earth orbit shortly after launch, destined for a fiery re-entry into the atmosphere sometime later this month.  Now the head of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos' Vladimir Popovkin, says he knows what went wrong - “foreign forces” interfered with Phobos-Grunt, sabotaging its mission.  “I wouldn't like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can't be excluded,” Popovkin said.  His comments seem to echo an allegation made by a retired Russian general back in November, shortly after Phobos-Grunt ran into problems; he cast the blame on a high-power radar array operated by the US military in Alaska.

Popovkin told Russia's Izvestia newspaper that “some Russian [space]craft had suffered 'unexplained' malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation's tracking facilities.”  While meant to blame foreign powers, Popovkin's comment gets to the heart of what really seems to have doomed Phobos-Grunt (along with explaining several other recent Russian space program failures), rampant cost-cutting in the Russian space program.  During the heyday of Russian exploration during the 1960s, the Soviet Union maintained a network of ground tracking stations and specially-outfitted communication ships so that Russian space missions were in near-constant contact with Russian ground controllers.  Today that network is gone.  When something went wrong with Phobos-Grunt, Russian controllers could only attempt to talk to the probe in blocks of time just a few minutes long when it was orbiting directly over Russia; Russian controllers later borrowed the use of a few radio-telescopes around the world to better their chances of reaching Phobos-Grunt.

Today though the once mighty Russian space program is being hit by budget cuts and a loss of experience as older engineers retire, without younger ones to replace them.  The result, predictably, has been a series of mission failures during the past year.  Still, according to noted space analyst James Oberg, “the urge to shift blame seems strong.”    
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