Russia hints foreign sabotage may be behind space program troubles
The head of Russia's space agency said it is 'suspicious' that most of the program's accidents occur in places that Russian radars can't reach.
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Roskosmos did have several successes in 2011, including the orbital deployment of a powerful radio-telescope, Spektr-R, that will be able to deliver images of remote corners of the universe at 10,000 times the accuracy of the Hubble Space Telescope.Skip to next paragraph
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Russian space scientists, who've enjoyed a large increase in funding over the past decade, have a full slate of hopeful plans on their drawing boards. But the failure of Phobos-Grunt in November brought all the painful questions roaring back. It was one of Russia's most ambitious space projects in decades, aimed at visiting the Martian moon of Phobos and bringing rock and soil samples back to Earth.
At the time, Popovkin admitted that Russia's space industry might be suffering from a systemic malaise.
"This is a significant failure," Popovkin said of the Phobos-Grunt debacle. "This proves that this area of space industry is in sort of a crisis. I can say, even now, the problem lies in the engine, but to be more certain we need to take a look at the telemetry."
The Phobos-Grunt vehicle has been trapped in near Earth orbit for two months, while space scientists have worked in vain to save it. It was recently spotted hurtling backwards at the edge of the atmosphere. The 14-ton object is projected to break into two dozen separate fireballs that will come hailing down (no one can say exactly where) on Jan. 15.
"The basic problem is that our space industry has been degrading for a long time," says Roman Gusarov, editor of Avia.ru, an online aerospace magazine. "It's very complicated technology, with a long chain of industrial suppliers, and the holes have been growing wider and more numerous for years … The system can still turn out old Soyuz and Progress ships, but it can't handle new technologies. I don't understand why they were in such a hurry to launch Phobos-Grunt, given the known risks."
The beleaguered Roskosmos chief Popovkin, who has only been in his job since last April, insisted Tuesday that if they hadn't seized the November launch window the agency would have lost more than $150-million and might have had to scrap the mission altogether.
But blaming foreigners is a new, and potentially ominious twist, say experts.
"The Phobos-Grunt project was inherently risky and it was underfunded to begin with," says Alexei Sinitsky, editor of Aviatsionnoye Obozreniye, an aerospace trade journal.
"There's no need for conspiracy theories, and no reason to take Popovkin's suggestion seriously," he adds. "Maybe he meant extraterrestrials?"