Thu, Feb 02, 2012 - Page 6 News List

‘Cosmic rays’ to blame for probe failure: Moscow

AT FAULT:The Russian space agency chief also blamed substandard or fake imported microchips — claims that a skeptic said was ‘absolutely ridiculous’

AFP, Moscow

Russia on Tuesday blamed a computer malfunction caused by the impact of cosmic rays for the failure of its Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars, one of a litany of setbacks for its embattled space program.

Announcing the initial results of the investigation into the Mars mission, Russian space agency Roscosmos also revealed the next manned launch to the International Space Station would be delayed because of technical problems.

The Phobos-Grunt probe — which was to have brought home a sample of soil from Mars’ largest moon — crashed back to Earth on Jan. 15 after becoming stuck in Earth’s orbit shortly after its launch on Nov. 9.

“The most likely reason in the commission’s opinion is the local influence of heavy charged particles from outer space on the onboard computer system,” RIA Novosti news agency quoted Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkinas saying.

Cosmic rays apparently led the onboard computer system to experience memory problems after launch, which led to parts of the system restarting and going into energy-saving mode, the Roscosmos chief said.

Staff at the rocket-building plant had been punished for non-criminal offenses, he said.

“Carrying out such a large-scale, lengthy job, they should have taken into consideration the effect of outer space on the equipment of an interplanetary station,” Popovkinas said.

He also blamed substandard or fake foreign-made microchips used in the probe, saying more than 60 percent were not designed for use in space.

“This is imported equipment and of course this is probably a reason,” he said.

Russia had previously speculated that radiation from US radar could have put the probe out of action.

However, a space industry source told RIA Novosti it was “absolutely ridiculous” to claim the developers did not account for the effects of the cosmic radiation that is constantly bombarding the Earth’s atmosphere.

“They weren’t making a vacuum cleaner, but a spaceship that had to fly in the aggressive environment of outer space and it is just impossible that they did not consider this,” the source said.

The long-running project had undergone numerous modifications that were untested in space, Lev Zeleny of the Institute of Space Studies told the Interfax news agency.

“Practically it was newly constructed ... I think that was one of the main reasons for the failure,” he said.

“There was a series of the most blatant errors in designing the craft that led to it being impossible to use,” Igor Lisov of Space News magazine told Kommersant FM radio station.

Popovkin also confirmed that the next manned flight to the International Space Station, scheduled for March 30, would be delayed by a month because of flaws that showed up in testing of the Soyuz space capsule.

“The reason is the criticisms that came up while testing the ship,” Popovkin said, with the official date to be set today after a teleconference with NASA.

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