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The Russian space probe Phobos-Grunt crashed into the Earth on Sunday, January 15. Several space industry officials from Russia, including those involved with the mission, believe that radiation from a US radar may have accidentally caused the probe to fail.
When Phobos-Grunt was launched on November 9th, it became stranded in orbit on the same day due to a propulsion malfunction. After two months, the probe plummeted back to the Earth and fell in areas of the Pacific Ocean near Chile and Brazil.
Russian scientists predicted Phobos-Grunt would break into 20-30 fragments upon reentering the atmosphere. The probe weighed 13.5 metric tons, with an additional 1.1 metric tons of toxic fuel, but it is not the heaviest object to hurtle into the Earth – nearly one hundred tons of man-made objects and natural space debris crash every year. Furthermore, the toxic fuel the Phobos-Grunt contained burned up in the atmosphere.
Opinions as to what caused Phobos-Grunt to fail vary and even contradict one another.
“Experts do not rule out that the probe could have accidentally come under the impact of emissions [from a U.S. radar stationed on the Marshall Islands], whose megawatt impulse triggered the malfunctioning of on-board electronics,” stated an anonymous source provided by an article on Izvestia Daily.
Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, agrees that the US radar might have been the cause of Phobos-Grunt’s failure. “I don’t want to make any accusations, but at present there are powerful technologies that can impact spacecraft, and their usage cannot be ruled out,” he insists in an article from Ria Novosti.
However, Viktor Savorsky, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Radio Technology and Electronics, thinks otherwise of Phobos-Grunt. “The electronic equipment [of spacecraft] is usually protected very well against radiation and sheltered against external fields,” he says in the same article.
Alexander Zakharov, a specialist at the Space Research Institute, which developed Phobos-Grunt, firmly says the idea of radar being so powerful as to wipe out a probe hundreds of miles away is “contrived” and “exotic.”
“I simply think that is disingenuous,” Zakharov says in another article from Izvestia Daily. “It is convenient to find the cause of the failure on the outside. The spacecraft itself should be examined first. There are problems there.”
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin believes it to be too soon for conclusions. He considers the possibility that the US radar may have caused the failure, but also thinks the probe itself may be at fault.
Scientists from Russia will check to see if the US radar really caused Phobos-Grunt to fail through performing an experiment in which a Phobos-Grunt-like model will be exposed to similar radiation from the radar. The investigation team will be lead by Yury Koptev, former head of Roscosmos.
Phobos-Grunt is Russia’s most ambitious and expensive space project since Soviet times, costing $170 million. Its mission was to travel to the Martian moon Phobos and collect soil samples, which Russian scientists had hoped would shed light on the origin of the solar system.
In the past, nearly seventy missions of Russian space probes bent on traveling to Mars have failed, the most recent occurring in 1996 when Mars-96 suffered from engine failure.