Russia Blames Radiation for Loss of Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft

Phobos-Grunt in preparation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Roscosmos says that radiation in low Earth orbit fried Phobos-Grunt’s computer, an explanation that not everyone is buying:

“The most likely reason, in the opinion of the commission, was the local impact of heavily charged space particles that led to a failure in the memory of the main onboard computer in the second stage of flight,” [Roscosmos Head Vladimir] Popovkin told Russian news agencies in Voronezh, a town 450 km (280 miles) south of Moscow.

A burst of space radiation caused the onboard computers to reboot and go into standby mode, he said.

Popovkin said foreign-made counterfeit or defective microchips were partly to blame for the failure of the $165-million spacecraft, designed to retrieve soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos…

State RIA news agency cited an industry source as saying it was “simply absurd” that Phobos-Grunt had not been made to withstand cosmic rays on its two-year interplanetary mission.

“They did not make a vacuum cleaner but a spacecraft that is intended to fly in the aggressive environment of outer space. They couldn’t have failed to take this into account,” the source said.

Another space industry source said potentially damaging bursts of radiation were highly unlikely in low-Earth orbit, where hundreds of satellites circle within the protective bubble of the planet’s magnetic field.

Whatever the truth, Roscosmos has at least ruled out the possibility that the satellite was fried by a U.S. radar installation either in Alaska or the Marshall Island. This theory, which Russia’s own scientists found far fetched, has been denied by the American government.

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  • warshawski

    This is more reasonable than spies damaging the spacecraft. If the chips were lowest bidder then the quality could have made them more suceptible to failure. It may also have been as simple as poor soldering or contamination causing a short on the memory chips.
    At least this reason is the result of a failure analysis and isolates the most likely area of failure and work can be done to improve the integrity of the memory chips in future missions.
    One thing though without the probe to physically check or a lot of telemetry data you can never be 100% sure of the cause of failure.