Grief and Concern over Russian Phobos-Grunt Failure

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Artist’s rendition of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which plunge to Earth on January 15. (Credits: stuff.co.nz)

A fresh flurry of discussions, investigations, and accusations accompanied Russian probe Phobos-Grunt’s plunge to Earth on January 15, 2012. Following a string of spectacular failures over the past year, the investigation into Phobos-Grunt has taken several turns. In November, President Medvedev suggested that criminal charges might be levied against individuals found to have endangered Russia’s space capabilities. In January, Russia publicly indicated suspicion of interference with the probe by a US military radar station on the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands: “I don’t want to make any accusations,”said Roscomos chief Vladimir Popovkin on January 11, “but today there is powerful equipment to influence spacecraft, and the possibility of their use should not be ruled out.” The Roscosmos officials later backpedaled on that accusation, instead speaking of  accidental interference.

Even though both Russian and NASA scientists believe that such interference could at most have caused a few minutes of interruption in communications, not the probe’s failure, Roscosmos is moving forward with an experiment to test the theory. “I don’t think the Americans have radars capable of ensuring such power at such an altitude,” said Alexander Zakharov of the Russian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute, where the Phobos-Grunt equipment and research program were developed. “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.” In a January 20 statement, Popovkin seemed to distance himself from the US radar theory: “The main causes were the errors during production and test works, as well as the engineering flaws,” he said. The US radar interference is viewed as “only one of the causes.”

Indeed, there have been rumors in the space community that the aging workforce and insufficient funding have played a key role in recent failures. “I feel grief,” said lead mission scientist Alexander Zakharov after the probe’s boosters failed to fire. “It’s very sad that this is how it all worked out but this is a consequence of our lack of people after such a big interval… Many young people worked on this. There is a lack of experience, we are working almost from scratch.”

Some have stated that the deployment of Phobos-Grunt was unduly rushed to meet the launch window, which will not reoccur until 2014. “We were hostages to previously made decisions,” said Popovkin. “We had commitments to the European Space Agency, which provided equipment, and to our Chinese colleagues as we undertook the task of delivering their satellite to Mars onboard Phobos-Grunt.”

The Meridian 4 satellite, carried by a Soyuz-2.1a rocket (Source: rian.ru).

However, the difficulties at Roscosmos seem to go deeper than that. In May, Reuters reported that corruption is rampant in Russia’s  military – closely linked to the space agency – according to chief military prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky: “Huge money is being stolen – practically every fifth ruple.” In October, Popovkin was summoned to speak before the Russian parliament regarding the pre-Phobos-Grunt failures. He spoke of a “deep-rooted crisis,” outdated regulations, a workforce of whom 45% are older than 60 years of age, and “considerable fixed asset depreciation.” Popovkin returned to this theme after the December 23 launch failure of a Soyuz-2 rocket carrying a Meridian communication satellite: “The space branch is suffering a crisis,” he said. “We must resolve this situation and give way to the youth.”

Photograph of the Energomash plant (Credits: Lana Sator).

Roscosmos has also experienced security issues at its Moscow Energomash plant, where a group of bloggers infiltrated and reportedly wandered, taking photographs, for five days without being challenged. After the incident Roscosmos was ordered to rectify the security situation by January, with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin promising to punish the “sleepy cats” responsible for the plant’s security. Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, operators of the Energomash plant, reported that they have no funds available to repair the fence through which access was gained.

Yuri Koptev, chairman of the scientific and technical council of the Russian Technologies State Corporation and a former head of the Russian space agency, is in charge of the investigation into Phobos-Grunt’s failure. Findings from his investigation are currently scheduled to be released on January 26, 2012.

On January 16 ISS Expedition 31 crew due to launch to the station aboard a Soyuz on March 29 emphasized to the press that they had no concerns relating to the craft’s safety. “I feel very confident, and we’re ready for a good ride,” said NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, a flight engineer on the upcoming Expedition 31. “Currently, all problems are resolved, and we are sure no problem is expected,” said cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, Expedition 31′s commander. “This is the most dependable spacecraft for the last 40 years.”

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