Thu, Jan 12, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Russian space chief says failures may be sabotage


Some recent Russian satellite failures may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, Russia’s space chief said on Tuesday, in comments apparently aimed at the US.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any specific country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview in the daily Izvestia, he said some Russian craft had suffered “unexplained” malfunctions while flying over the other side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation’s tracking facilities.

Popovkin spoke when asked about the failure of the US$170 million unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. Engineers in Russia and the European Space Agency have failed to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, and it is expected to fall back to Earth on Sunday.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin’s comments, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed that foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country’s satellites.

Popovkin said modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influences.

“I wouldn’t like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can’t be excluded,” he said.

James Oberg, a NASA veteran who has written books on the Russian space program and now works as a space consultant, said Popovkin’s comments were a sad example of the Russian cultural instinct to “blame foreigners.”

“It’s a feature of space launch trajectories that orbital adjustments must be made halfway around the first orbit to circularize and stabilize subsequent orbits,” Oberg said in e-mailed comments. “The Russians must know that simple geography — not evildoers lurking in shadows — dictate where their communications ‘blind spots’ are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong.”

The failed Phobos mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country’s space industries and raised pressure on Popovkin. Space officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging workforce.

Popovkin also said that in 2013, Russia would launch three new communications satellites that will be able to retransmit signals from other Russian spacecraft as they fly over the other hemisphere.

A retired Russian general alleged in November last year that the Phobos-Ground might have been incapacitated by a powerful US radar. Nikolai Rodionov, who previously was in charge of Russia’s early warning system, was quoted as saying that a powerful electromagnetic impulse generated by US radar in Alaska might have affected the probe’s control system.

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