[Satellite News 01-19-12] A Russian government investigation into the failed launch of the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe has determined that engineering flaws on behalf of the spacecraft’s manufacturer NPO Lavochkin were the primary cause of the incident, Russian Space Agency Roskosmos Chief Vladimir Popovkin confirmed Jan 19.
Russia launched the Phobos-Grunt planetary mission Nov. 9 to obtain a soil sample from the Mars moon Phobos and return it to Earth. The satellite was lost in low-Earth orbit, however, shortly after its propulsion engines failed to fire. Phobos-Grunt fell back to Earth on Jan. 15.
The Russian government commission’s findings come nine days after Popovkin hinted to Russian newspapers that outside interference might be to blame for the series of setbacks. “I don’t want to blame anyone, but today there are powerful means to affect the trajectory of spacecraft, and we can’t exclude that these have been deployed,” Popovkin said in the Jan. 10 statement.
Popovkin did add, however, that there was, “no clarity as to why Phobos-Grunt’s 13.5-tonne probe’s booster rocket failed to fire on schedule. It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are traveling through areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings.”
Roskosmos officials speculated that the crash could have been caused by a powerful electromagnetic emission from a U.S.-operated radar. In a new statement issued Jan. 19, Popovkin maintained his belief that the U.S. radar could still be one of the culprits, but acknowledged that, “the main causes were the errors during production and test works, as well as the engineering flaws.
Roskosmos is planning to hold tests to see whether or not U.S. radars affected the probe. Popovkin confirmed that NASA specialists might team up with Roskosmos for the testing. Popovkin also said the agency was in talks NASA on possible joint construction of a manned base on the Moon’s surface or a project to position an automated research station in orbit around the Moon.
Since 1960, Russia has failed in all 17 of its attempts to study Mars, according to NASA data. Russia previously lost its Mars-96 orbiter during its 1996 launch attempt. The Fobos-Grunt project began in 1999, when the Russian Space Research Institute and NPO Lavochkin, the main developer of Soviet and Russian interplanetary probes, initiated a 9 million-ruble ($287,200) feasibility study into a Phobos sample-return mission. The initial spacecraft’s design was based the probes of the Fobos program launched in the late 1980s. Development on Fobos-Grunt started in 2001 and its preliminary design was completed three years later. NPO Lavochkin began manufacturing and testing the development version of the spacecraft’s onboard equipment in 2006.
Roskosmos was plagued by a string of launch failures in 2011. Popovkin was named the head of Roskosmos in April to replace former chief Anatoly Perminov, who was fired after the loss of three Glonass navigation satellites in a Proton-M carrier rocket failure in December 2010. Perminov, who served at Roskosmos since 2004, was one of three high-ranking Russian space officials to be fired for the incident.
The agency’s launch troubles continued, however, as Russia lost several more satellites and its Progress cargo ship under Perminov’s direction. The Phobos-Grun failure was followed last month by the loss of the Meridian communications satellite, which crashed into central Siberia. Russian auditors have blamed human error for the two failed space launches.
Despite the recent setbacks, Popovkin asserted that Russia is planning new exploration missions to the moon and Mars. “We are currently negotiating with the European Space Agency (ESA) to fly a mission to Mars between 2016 and 2018,” Popovkin said, adding that the Russian government has yet to allocate funds for the project.