We might see chunks of Russia's crippled Phobos-Grunt Mars probe fall back to Earth this Sunday because it couldn't get out of orbit after its November launch. It sounds like a mere mishap, but Russia's space chief feels differently. He says it was ... wait for it ...SABOTAGE!
Speaking to a Russian daily newspaper, Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin blamed the failure of Phobos-Grunt (or Phobos-Ground) on "unexplained" malfunctions as the craft flew over a side of the Earth where Russian tracking systems can't reach, namely the Western Hemisphere.
It sounds like a nudge and a wink in the direction of the United States, but Popovkin didn't name names, or even go into specifics, beyond citing how easy it is these days to mess with someone else's orbiter.
"I wouldn't like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can't be excluded," he said.
Phobos-Grunt is a $170 million probe that was launched Nov. 9 in an effort to land on the Martian moon Phobos. It would have picked up soil samples and flown them back to Earth for study, but the rockets that were supposed to propel it out of Earth orbit and toward Mars never fired. It's been spinning around its home planet ever since, and no one in Roscosmos or the European Space Agency has been able to properly troubleshoot it.
Now Phobos-Grunt is falling back to Earth with its mission unaccomplished. Popovkin said no one in Roscosmos has figured out yet why exactly things went wrong on the craft, but he did admit that some "risky technological solutions" were employed to save money during the probe's construction.
Poor funding and sketchy technology have been the source of many of Russia's space woes of late, but the sabotage excuse isn't a new one. Even back in November, when Phobos-Grunt was first having issues, retired Russian General Nikolai Rodionov was claiming that electromagnetic impulses from an American radar installation in Alaska might have had something to do with the probe's problems.
Former NASA employee and space consultant James Oberg—an expert on the Russian space program—thinks there's a much simpler explanation.
"The Russians must know that simple geography—not evildoers lurking in shadows—dictate where their communications 'blind spots' are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong," he said.
Russia will be launching three new communications satellites to help cover those "blind spots" sometime in 2013. We'll see if they have the same problems then.