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Russia Now Blames Cosmic Radiation For Failed Mars Mission

February 1, 2012

Russian space agency Roscosmos announced on Tuesday the initial results of an investigation into its failed Mars mission, blaming cosmic radiation for a computer glitch that ultimately doomed the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, Moscow’s first deep space mission in twenty years.

“The most likely reason in the commission’s opinion is the local influence of heavy charged particles from outer space on the onboard computer system,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin as saying.

The space agency also announced a delay due to technical problems of its next manned launch to the International Space Station (ISS).

The unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe was to have brought back a sample of soil from Mars’ largest moon, Phobos.   Instead, the spacecraft became stuck in low orbit around the Earth shortly after its launch on November 9, before gradually descending and crashing into the Pacific Ocean on January 15.

The incident is one of five failed Russian launches in recent years.

Popovkin attributed the failure to cosmic rays that apparently led the onboard computer system to experience memory problems after launch, causing parts of the system to restart and go into energy-saving mode.

Employees at the rocket-building plant had been punished for non-criminal offenses, the Roscosmos chief said.

“Carrying out such a large-scale, lengthy job, they should have taken into consideration the effect of outer space on the equipment of an interplanetary station.”

However, a space industry source told RIA Novosti that it was “absolutely ridiculous” to claim the developers did not account for the effects of the cosmic radiation that is continuously showering the Earth’s atmosphere.

“They weren’t making a vacuum cleaner but a spaceship that had to fly in the aggressive environment of outer space and it is just impossible that they did not consider this,” the source told the Russian news agency.

Popovkin also blamed sub-par or counterfeit foreign-made microprocessors used in the probe, saying more than 60 percent were not designed for use in space.

“This is imported equipment and of course this is probably a reason,” he said.

Russia had previously speculated that radiation from U.S. radar might have caused the probe to malfunction.

But industry experts are skeptical of these claims.

Lev Zeleny of the Institute of Space Studies told the Interfax news agency that the long-running project had undergone numerous modifications that were untested in space.

“Practically it was newly constructed. … I think that was one of the main reasons for the failure,” he said.

Meanwhile, Igor Lisov of Space News magazine told Kommersant FM radio station that design errors may have led to the probe´s failure.

“There was a series of the most blatant errors in designing the craft that led to it being impossible to use,” he said.

During Tuesday´s announcement, Popovkin also confirmed that the next manned flight to the ISS, originally scheduled for March 30, would be delayed by one month due to flaws that were discovered during testing of the Soyuz space capsule.

“The reason is the criticisms that came up while testing the ship,” Popovkin said.

The official date will be set on Thursday following discussions with NASA.

Earlier Tuesday, Alexei Krasnov, Roscosmos´ chief of manned programs, said the re-entry capsule of the Soyuz TMA-04M space ship was found not to be hermetically sealed.

The mission will now abandon its faulty re-entry capsule, and will instead launch with one intended for the following May 30 mission, which will now be delayed.

Russia has experienced an humiliating series of failures in its space program in recent year, including the crash of an unmanned craft transporting supplies to the ISS.

On Tuesday, Popovkin said Roscosmos would cost between 150 and 200 billion rubles ($4.9 billion and $6.6 billion) per year through 2030.

Image Caption: A Zenit rocket with Phobos-Grunt is being erected onto the launch pad on November 6.

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports



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