A humiliating string of accidents that has beset Russia's space program over the past year, and only seems to be getting worse, may be the result of foreign sabotage, the head of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos), Vladimir Popovkin, hinted on Tuesday.
At least seven serious disasters have struck Russian space ventures in little more than a year, wrecking Roskosmos's reputation and putting some of its key projects in doubt. Mr. Popovkin, who had earlier pointed to industrial failures as the source of Roskosmos' woes, said Tuesday that he found it "suspicious" that many accidents occur in blind spots where they are not covered by Russian radars.
"It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are traveling through what for Russia is the 'dark' side of the Earth – in areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings," Popovkin said in an interview with the pro-government daily newspaper Izvestia.
"I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude," he added.
The chain of disasters began in December 2010, when a Proton-M rocket plunged into the Pacific Ocean along with three satellites that had been meant to complete the GLONASS global navigation network, Russia's answer to the US GPS system.
It continued with the crash of a Rokot launcher carrying a military satellite in February, a failed Proton mission in early August, and the spectacular destruction of an unmanned Progress freighter later in August, which rained debris over western Siberia and called into question Roskosmos' ability to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).
Russia suspended space flights after the accident, and launched an investigation into its causes. Roskosmos resumed supply flights to the ISS in late October, and his since successfully sent one unmanned Progress freighter and two manned Soyuz missions to restore links with the international station.
However, in November, the agency's long-planned Phobos-Grunt Mars probe failed to boost out of its orbit, and is now expected to crash back to earth on Jan. 15. Last month a Soyuz-2 rocket crashed in Siberia, along with a new generation Meridian satellite that was a vital part of a program to update Russia's military communications links.
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.
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?"