After weeks of worldwide anxiety about where the derelict Russian space probe Fobos-Grunt would come down and what would become of its multi-ton tanks filled with toxic rocket fuel, the expected impact with earth’s atmosphere occurred late on Sunday 16 January. But the reentry set off a ferocious conflagration of an unanticipated kind.
The obvious spark was in the mystery of its actual impact point. Moscow officially released a statement claiming that the probe had fallen safely in the Pacific, off the coast of Chile. But within hours it became clear that the claim was only a guess based on computer models; the Russians had no actual evidence—no witnesses, no radar tracks, no telemetry—to back it up. The possibility remained that the probe’s fragments actually overshot the Pacific and hit Chile, Argentina, or Brazil—or even the South Atlantic.
As if to distract attention from this embarrassment, the Russian news media once again took up the suggestion that the probe had failed due to U.S. interference. The claim had already appeared several times, first implicating Pentagon radars in Alaska, and then—when a simple look at a map showed the probe had never been in range of them—military installations on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands. Even the head of the Russian Space Agency, Vladimir Popovkin, got in on the act, telling newspapers last week that he had suspicions but wasn’t going to accuse anyone explicitly.
The accusation was left to an investigative journalist at the independent daily newspaper Kommersant, who wrote in today’s edition that members of the official investigation team suspect the United States of ‘accidentally’ lobotomizing the probe right after it was launched. In this scenario, the Americans were innocently beaming radar signals deep into space to get measurements of a passing asteroid, and forgot to warn Russia. The probe passed through the beam by chance and its autopilot was fried.
"There is a possibility that the station accidentally entered the area covered by the radar,” said the newspaper’s source, who added, that this likely “resulted in a failure of [the probe’s] electronics caused by a megawatt impulse. After that, it could no longer give a command to switch on the Fobos’ propelling system.”
Within hours, space officials publicly confirmed their suspicions. Former space chief Yuriy Koptev, called out of retirement to head the investigation, said that a model of the probe was going to be placed in a radar beam to see what would happen. And Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rogozin, recently promoted to that post with the sole task of reforming the failure-plagued Russian missile-space industry, defended the theory. “There is evidence indicating that frequent disruptions in the operation of our space technologies occur in that part of the flight path that is not visible to Roscosmos and is beyond its [monitoring],” he told reporters.
Rogozin, at least, admitted that a far more plausible cause was a failure on the spacecraft itself. “Practially all disruptions are due to flaws in the technologies manufactured 12 to 13 years ago,” he said. And a new and highly plausible report issued today further supports the leading theory: that the craft’s autopilot software had never been adequately debugged. The probe’s chief scientist, Alexander Zakharov, also denounced the interference theory as “exotic” and “disingenuous.”
The Russians have space tracking blind spots around the world because they scrapped their sea-going tracking ships years ago, and closed down other ground sites. The space program’s tracking ability is so limited that shortly before the launch of Fobos-Grunt, a program scientist emailed amateur astronomers in South America, asking them to go outside when the probe was passing overhead and report whether its rocket was firing on time. (It wasn't, as it turned out.)
And as for Kwajalein, scientists familiar with worldwide radar tracking of asteroids assure me they've never heard of any participation by radars based there. If asked, they would have told Kommersant the same thing.
Sadly, this knee-jerk blame shifting in the space industry has ramped up in recent years. The real danger in the Russian nonsense about finding the United States at fault for the crash isn’t just the blow to diplomacy and public attitudes. Also important is how such claims prevent a proper investigation and get in the way of implementing a reliable “fix.”
Phantom “causes” lead to delusional, even damaging, responses. That raises the level of danger to which everybody whose lives depend on Russian spacecraft—and that now includes U.S. and other astronauts—is exposed.
James Oberg is a retired "rocket scientist" in Texas, after a 20+ year career in NASA Mission Control and subsequently an on-air space consultant for ABC News and then NBC News. The author of a dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the past, present, and potential future of space exploration, he has reported from space launch and operations centers across the United States and Russia and North Korea.