Did a U.S. radar mistakenly send Russia’s $170m Mars probe into the Pacific?

Last updated at 10:39 PM on 17th January 2012

Russia is concerned that a U.S. radar station could have inadvertently interfered with the failed Mars moon probe that plummeted to Earth, but experts argued that any such claims were far-fetched.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted an ex-official saying investigators will conduct tests to check if U.S. radar emissions could have impacted the Phobos-Ground space probe, which was stuck in Earth’s orbit for two months before crashing down near Chile and Brazil.

‘The results of the experiment will allow us to prove or dismiss the possibility of the radar’s impact,’ said Yury Koptev, former head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos who is leading the investigation into the probe’s failure.

U.S. experts suggested that the Russians should look for causes of the failure at home.

‘The Russian Space Agency would do themselves and the future of Russian planetary exploration some good to look inside the project and the agency to find the cause of the Phobos-Ground mishap,’ said Alan Stern, a former Nasa administrator.

Russia’s space chief has acknowledged the Phobos-Ground mission was ill-prepared, but said that Roscosmos had to give it the go-ahead so as not to miss the limited Earth-to-Mars launch window.

The Phobos-Ground fell to Earth on Sunday in the vicinity of Chile and Brazil, but the true impact site has not been reported.

The $170million craft was one of the heaviest and most toxic pieces of space junk ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts said the risks posed by its crash were minimal because the toxic rocket fuel on board and most of the craft’s structure would burn up in the atmosphere high above the ground anyway.

The Phobos-Ground probe was designed to travel to one of Mars’ twin moons, Phobos, land on it, collect soil samples and fly them back to Earth in 2014 in one of the most daunting interplanetary missions ever.

It got stranded in Earth’s orbit after its November 9 launch, and efforts by Russian and European Space Agency experts to bring it back to life failed.

The current Roscosmos head, Vladimir Popovkin, has said the craft’s malfunction could have been caused by foreign interference.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin acknowledged U.S. radar interference as a possible cause but said it was too early to make any conclusions and suggested the problem could be the spacecraft itself.

‘Practically all disruptions are due to flaws in the technologies manufactured 12 to 13 years ago,’ Mr Rogozin said.

Other space experts said the possibility of U.S. interference should be considered only after investigating all other possible causes.

Alexander Zakharov, a specialist at the Space Research Institute, which developed the Phobos-Ground, called the suggestion ‘contrived’ and doubted the United States has radar powerful enough to interfere with a spacecraft at an altitude of around 200 kilometers (124 miles).

‘You can come up with a lot of exotic reasons, but first you need to look at the apparatus itself, and there is a problem there,’ Mr Zakharov told RIA Novosti.

Phobos-Ground was Russia’s most expensive and the most ambitious space mission since Soviet times. Its mission to the crater-dented, potato-shaped Martian moon was to give scientists precious materials that could shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.

Crashdown: A handout image released by the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos mapped the huge area where controllers initially said Phobos-Ground would fall

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