Ian O’Neill / Al Jazeera – 2012-02-02 03:01:03
The Era of Falling Spacecraft
The botched launch of Phobos-Grunt highlights Russia-US distrust, failed rockets and conspiracy theories
LOS ANGELES, CA (January 30, 2012) — On Sunday, January 15, the sorry tale of Phobos-Grunt came to a fiery end. After three months of floating helplessly in Earth’s orbit after a botched launch, the Russian mission to the Martian moon Phobos re-entered the atmosphere, scattering its smouldering debris over the Pacific Ocean, somewhere off the coast of Chile.
Who was to blame for the latest Russian launch failure on November 8? Was the spacecraft’s upper stage rocket faulty? Or did something (or someone) “kill” the probe’s electronics before it had the opportunity to boost its way out of orbit and on to Mars?
The answer to this question highlights two things: A failing Russian space industry and a heavy dose of Russia-US distrust.
The $163 million Phobos-Grunt mission was an ambitious attempt to send an unmanned spacecraft to Mars’ largest moon. The plan was to land on Phobos, collect a sample of soil (called “grunt” in Russian, hence the probe’s name) and return it to Earth for analysis.
Also, the probe had a tiny container filled with microorganisms (the US Planetary Society’s LIFE experiment) intended to see how terrestrial life may fare in space for an extended period of time. Hitching a ride with Phobos-Grunt was China’s first Mars satellite, Yinghuo-1. Unfortunately, the whole Mars-bound bundle became a very expensive piece of space junk.
Only days after the launch, apparently to divert attention from alleged mismanagement during launch preparations, Nikolay Rodionov, a retired commander of Russia’s ballistic missile early warning system, openly speculated that a “powerful American radar” in Alaska “could have influenced the control systems of our interplanetary rover”.
The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme (HAARP) observatory is based in Alaska, and it is believed Rodionov was referring to that. HAARP is most famous in conspiracy circles for reportedly being a weapon developed by the US military to do everything from triggering earthquakes to controlling minds.
The reality is a little more mundane — it is actually a radar facility used to examine the nature of the Earth’s ionosphere. Sadly, conspiracy theorists insist something more sinister is going on, so Rodionov’s theory is, no doubt, piquing the interest in some overactive imaginations.
HAARP is used to heat the high-energy particles (plasma) buzzing around in the ionosphere more than 60 kilometres above our heads. By doing so, signals are bounced off the heated layer to see how communications can be affected. Since the advent of the radio — and well before the invention of communications satellites that could send transmissions “over the horizon” — we’ve used the ionosphere as a communications “mirror” to bounce radio around the world.
Also, the ionosphere acts as Earth’s “deflector shield” from solar flares — as powerful radiation bathes our atmosphere during intense solar activity, the ionosphere absorbs X-rays, causing the atmosphere to heat up and expand.
Atmospheric expansion can be a real problem for orbiting satellites, for example, when atmospheric gases reach higher, satellites “feel” an increase in drag, slowing them down. A satellite dropping out of orbit is generally bad for business, so this is another motivation for ionospheric science experiments such as HAARP. Not only was Rodionov incorrect in thinking HAARP could cause damage to a spacecraft orbiting more than 200 miles overhead — the signal is far too weak to have any conceivable effect on something orbiting so high — and the transmitter hadn’t been turned on since September.
Allegations of foul play took a different turn on January 17 when Yury Koptev, the head of the scientific committee of state technology company Russian Technologies, told the Russian media that there was a theory that another US radar facility may be to blame. Koptev didn’t believe the incident was deliberate, however, citing “unintentional exposure to American radar” as the cause of the Phobos-Grunt failure.
What was the culprit this time? A US asteroid tracking radar based on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Somehow, the probe had accidentally drifted over the facility. And for some reason, it hadn’t been turned off when the probe passed overhead. Needless to say, this allegation has left many scratching their heads in confusion.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos has even hinted at possible interference shortly after the probe was launched. Last week, Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said, “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.”
With all this finger-pointing, one would think Phobos-Grunt succumbed to being zapped by the US for reasons unknown. But the problem is that there is no proof for the extraordinary claim that a spacecraft was knocked out by US radar.
Despite what the conspiracy theorists think, ground-based radar signals are weak by the time they reach orbital altitudes. Besides, the Sun delivers far more radiation to orbiting satellites, so it seems a little odd that a weak signal from Earth could paralyse a spacecraft bound for Mars.
Whether or not the US could disable Phobos-Grunt seems rather academic for now. While an internal investigation is under way in Russia — President Dmitry Medvedev has even called for criminal prosecution of those responsible within the Russian space industry for a spate of embarrassing failures — space officials are still pursuing the “foreign influence” angle. Koptev said that equipment similar to Phobos-Grunt will be experimented on to see how the alleged US radar transmissions may damage it.
Partners in Space
For a nation that is effectively partnered with the US in staffed space exploration, it may seem weird that these accusations are being bandied about. The US and Russia are key partners in the International Space Station (ISS) and NASA currently depends on the Russian Soyuz launch system to get US astronauts into orbit. Since the space shuttle retired in 2011, Roscosmos has been charging NASA around $65 million per seat for taxi rides to the ISS.
But in the wake of a series of accidents during unmanned launches, concern is growing for the safety of the world’s most reliable staffed spacecraft. In August 2011, an unmanned Progress supply vehicle bound for the space station failed to reach the correct orbit shortly after launch, causing it to crash in Siberia.
The failure — the first Russian or Soviet space cargo delivery accident since 1978 — raised concerns that the Soyuz rocket (an identical rocket used to send astronauts and cosmonauts into space) may have a dangerous fault in its upper stage booster.
The Phobos-Grunt and Progress losses are in addition to the loss of three navigation satellites in December 2010, a botched orbital insertion of a military satellite in February 2011, a commercial satellite loss a week before Progress crashed and another military satellite loss last month.
There is little doubt, then, that there are deep problems in the Russian space industry. In December, during a press conference, Popovkin admitted that “there is ageing of many resources. We need to optimise everything. We need to modernise”. Commentators agree, pinning the blame on infrastructure problems and lack of funding in the years since the Soviet Union collapsed.
Others point to a lack in fresh talent in key space engineering roles. But whatever the cause, the recent damage caused by a spate of failures in space has seriously damaged the nation’s reputation for safe and routine access to orbit.
Where does this leave the US? There’s no alternative to getting astronauts into space, so do we just keep our fingers crossed that Russian space launch failures remain in the realms of unmanned spacecraft?
The only glimmer of hope for a quick resolution for NASA’s dependence on Russia for access to space is the burgeoning private space sector, which is rapidly growing to be a viable alternative to government-run agencies. Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX for short) is regarded as one of the leading US companies to be the first to deliver not only cargo, but NASA’s astronauts to the ISS in the near future. But like any space endeavour, there are some bumps along the road and SpaceX’s debut space station launch has been delayed citing “technical issues”.
So for the time being, the US will need to tolerate Russian accusations and hope there are no launch accidents with astronauts on board before commercial space launch options become a reality.
Ian O’Neill is the Space Science Producer at Discovery News, and founder and editor of Astroengine.
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