Andrew Osborn



Chief Russia Correspondent


Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS





Russia's space agency hints at foreign hand in probe failure, 10th January 2012 07:50

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

The head of Russia's struggling space agency has suggested that foreign powers may have sabotaged the flight of an unmanned probe to one of Mars' moons last year.

Attempting to explain a string of embarrassing launch failures in the past 12 months, Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Roskosmos, hinted that shadowy external forces may have been behind the disastrous Phobos-Grunt mission last November.

"It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are travelling though what for Russia is the 'dark' side of the Earth – in areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings," the head of Russia's equivalent to NASA told the daily Izvestia newspaper.

"I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude."

The loss of the £103 million Phobos-Grunt probe last November was the latest in a line of launch failures that resulted in Mr Popovkin's predecessor being unceremoniously sacked last April.

The probe got stuck in a low earth orbit after its booster rocket failed to fire on schedule, meaning it never even set off in the direction of Phobos, one of Mars' moons. Its remains are expected to fall to Earth in the coming days though most of it will burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Last February, Russia lost a strategically important military satellite, last August a giant communications satellite had to be written off after a disastrous launch, and in December a Russian satellite crashed into Siberia minutes after its launch due to rocket failure.

Mr Popovkin, who is under mounting pressure to shore up his agency's tarnished reputation, said Russia would have to wait until 2013 before it had the technical ability thanks to satellites to track its own spacecraft whichever side of the earth they happened to be on.

"They will give us visibility in real time. We will know exactly what is going on and when," he said.