After abandoning efforts to save its Martian moon probe, Phobos-Grunt, that has been stranded in Earth´s orbit since early November, Russia is now focusing on where the blame lies for the expensive mishap. The accused: Alaska´s High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) transmitter.
Phobos-Grunt, now considered a 7.5 ton heap of space debris, is expected to plunge back to Earth around January 9, two months after it became stranded, according to Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has called for criminal prosecution for those responsible for failing to fulfill the country´s dream to finally launch a successful mission to Mars.
Shortly after Medvedev´s statement, a former Russian general found a more convenient scapegoat, placing blame on the often controversial radio facility outside Gakona for stopping Russia´s mission to the Red Planet.
Lt. Gen. Nikolay Rodionov, a retired commander of Russia´s ballistic missile early warning system, said US technology could have been the cause of the malfunction.
In a November 24 interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, Rodionov said “powerful American radars” in Alaska “could have influenced the control systems of our interplanetary rover.”
Rodionov was quoted as saying the US wants to use the ionosphere as part of its missile defense, although he did not elaborate. India´s ℠The Hindu´ newspaper reported the Rodionov was likely referring to the US´s HAARP observatory, established in 1993.
However, analysis of the timing and physics involved shows that there is little basis for this claim.
The HAARP observatory sits on an Air Force-owned site in Gakona, Alaska. It is used periodically by scientists to run experiments in the ionosphere, usually a couple times per year. It was last operated on September 3 and was not turned on when the Phobos-Grunt probe had its malfunction, according to program director Craig Selcher, with the Air Force Research Laboratory, at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Even if HAARP was turned on, a full-power blast would have hit the Russian probe with no more than 1.03 milliwatts of radio energy per square centimeter — about the same as pointing a 60-watt light bulb at it from 69 feet away, according to Selcher.
There are similar radar facilities operating in Norway, Russia, Peru and other locations, but HAARP is one of the most powerful. It is far more likely that effects of solar weather that constantly bombards the ionosphere could play a role in disabling Phobos-Grunt than any man-made object on the ground.
Image Caption: Color image of Phobos, imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. Credit: NASA
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