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Phobos-Grunt’s loss due to computer error, not external factors

January 31, 2012, 16:39 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The Russian automatic inter-planetary space probe Phobos-Grunt has failed to cope with its mission not due to some external causes, like intervention by US radars, but due to malfunctioning of the probe’s computer, the inter-departmental commission that has investigated the causes of the probe’s loss has said.

As the daily Kommersant has said, the joint inquiry under the chief of the scientific and technical council of the state-run corporation Rostekhnologii, Yuri Koptev, on Monday presented its findings to the chief of the federal space agency Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin. According to the daily, the commission unearthed no confirmation of the suspicion the probe had been subjected to some external effects. The commission said in the final report that there occurred “a software failure, which caused simultaneous restart of two channels of the on-board computer.”

Russia’s first inter-planetary probe over the past fifteen years was launched towards Mars on November 9, 2011. The probe was to land on Mars’s satellite Phobos and take samples of its soil. After that the return capsule was to deliver the samples to the Earth, while the probe would continue to operate on the satellite’s surface. The specialists hoped the mission would last 36 months. According to unofficial sources, the cost of the abortive project has reached about five billion rubles.

The Zenit booster rocket performed as expected, but at the phase of entering a path of flight towards Mars something went wrong and the engines of Phobos-Grunt failed to start. As a result, the probe remained in orbit around the Earth up to January 15, when its debris, according to Russia’s space forces, fell into the Pacific Ocean 1,250 kilometers away from Chile’s Wellington Island.

Last week there were rumors that the experts conducting the inquiry had arrived at the conclusion the loss of the probe was most probably due to the effects of a plasmoid in the magnetosphere of the Earth. However, scientists at once called that explanation in question. Also, some speculated that the probe may have been affected by a US radar.

“The commission examined a number of versions, but many of them were brushed off at once, while others, for instance, that of interference by radars at the Reagan test site on Kwajalein Atoll were recognized groundless after a series of tests. Electronics identical to the equipment Phobos-Grunt was carrying withstood the maximum level of radiation,” the daily quotes its source in the space rocket industry as saying. “As a result, all members of the commission dismissed all ‘out-of-this-world’ versions involving external effects.”

The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, too, has studied the conclusions of the inter-departmental commission. It obtained a copy from one of the chief specialists at the Lavochkin Industrial Association, which had created the space probe. “My colleagues and I are sick and tired of attempts to blame the Phobos-Grunt failure on some external effects,” he said. “Take the speculations the space probe hit a plasmoid. That's really something. In reality we have known for a long time that Phobos would not fly, and not through the fault of our programmers.”

He dismissed the suspicion a US radar was responsible. “The US radar has a capacity of 600 megawatts, and the distance from it to the satellite was 300 kilometers. Our specialists calculated the strength of the effects and imitated the beam. Everything worked, there were no failures. Besides, there were no chances a narrow beam might have hit a space probe having the first cosmic velocity,” the specialists said about the experiment.

The newspaper quotes the commission’s conclusions as saying “the main piece of criticism addressed to the project is this: the schedule of flight tests of such a space probe should have envisaged the testing of all on-board systems before the beginning of the flight program.”

“The on-board control complex had undergone no simulated stand tests,” said the chief specialist. “We were forced to polish everything when there was already the finished product. That means we had to work in the “all- hands-on-deck” way. The waste of time tripled. And quality left much to be desired. That’s a crime.”

He said programmers, who had suffered a great deal from strange decisions by the management themselves, repeatedly identified flaws in various programs, stopped work, and re-wrote the programs anew. That happened many times. And even after that no full-fledged tests followed. According to the commission’s findings, there had been no special program for restarting the system in case of an emergency.

The expert believes that problems with Phobos-Grunt had started back in 2007, when the former general designer of the Lavochkin Research and Industrial Association, Georgy Polishchuk, launched a massive campaign to “sweep out dead wood.” He used a military-style approach: “At 45 it’s time to retire on pension.” He dismissed the most experienced specialists to appoint 30-40 year-olds instead. “That should not have been done by any means. There should have been some continuity,” the specialists said.

“The loss of the inter-planetary probe Phobos-Grunt was due to mistakes in design and ridiculous irresponsibility of some managers,” the paper says. “So science fiction authors at the federal space agency should go and tell their bed-time scare stories about some malicious designs by crafty Americans to their children and grand children.”

And the last detail to the picture. The chief of the federal space agency Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, on Tuesday reviewed the findings of the inquiry into the Phobos-Grunt loss to declare that the disruptions of the on-board computer may have been caused by what the experts described as a “local effect of charged space particles, which affected the on-board computer back in the second orbit” around the Earth.

Nor did he rule out substandard or a faked electronics. “The microchips that were used in Phobos-Grunt were of foreign manufacture,” Popovkin said. “It looks like this is not only our own headache. Of late, both NASA and the US Department of Defense have the same sort of trouble to deal with.”


MOSCOW, January 31