MOSCOW — Russian space experts will look into the possibility that a U.S. radar station may have inadvertently interfered with the failed Mars moon probe that later plummeted to Earth, Russian media reported Tuesday.
The state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Yury Koptev, former head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, as saying investigators will conduct tests to check if a U.S. radar emissions could have impacted the Phobos-Ground space probe, which became stuck in Earth’s obit for two months before crashing down.
“The results of the experiment will allow us to prove or dismiss the possibility of the radar’s impact,” said Koptev, who is heading the government commission charged with investigating causes of the probe’s failure.
The current Roscosmos head, Vladimir Popovkin, previously said the craft’s malfunction could have been caused by foreign interference. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin acknowledged U.S. radar interference as a possible cause but said it was too early to make any conclusions.
“This version has the right to exist,” Rogozin said Tuesday. “There is evidence indicating that frequent disruptions in the operation of our space technologies occur in that part of the flight path that is not visible to Roscosmos and is beyond its control.”
Rogozin also suggested causes related to the spacecraft itself.
“Practially all disruptions are due to flaws in the technologies manufactured 12 to 13 years ago,” he said.
Other space experts agreed that claims of U.S. radar interference were far-fetched and should be considered only after investigating all other possible causes.
Alexander Zakharov, a specialist at the Space Research Institute, which developed the Phobos-Ground, called the suggestion “contrived” and doubted the United States has a radar powerful enough to interfere with a spacecraft at an altitude of around 200 kilometers (124 miles).
“You can come up with a lot of exotic reasons,” Zakharov told RIA Novosti. “But first you need to look at the apparatus itself, and there is a problem there.”
The Phobos-Ground fell to Earth on Sunday in the vicinity of Chile and Brazil, but no confirmed impact sites have been reported.
The $170 million craft was one of the heaviest and most toxic pieces of space junk ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts said the risks posed by its crash were minimal because the toxic rocket fuel on board and most of the craft’s structure would burn up in the atmosphere high above the ground anyway.
The Phobos-Ground probe was designed to travel to one of Mars’ twin moons, Phobos, land on it, collect soil samples and fly them back to Earth in 2014 in one of the most daunting interplanetary missions ever. It got stranded in Earth’s orbit after its Nov. 9 launch, and efforts by Russian and European Space Agency experts to bring it back to life failed.
The probe weighed 13.5 metric tons (14.9 tons), and that included a load of 11 metric tons (12 tons) of highly toxic rocket fuel intended for the long journey to the Martian moon of Phobos and left unused as the probe got stranded in orbit around Earth.
Roscosmos had said that all of the fuel would burn up on re-entry.
Phobos-Ground was Russia’s most expensive and the most ambitious space mission since Soviet times. Its mission to the crater-dented, potato-shaped Martian moon was to give scientists precious materials that could shed more light on the genesis of the solar system.
Russia’s space chief has acknowledged the Phobos-Ground mission was ill-prepared, but said that Roscosmos had to give it the go-ahead so as not to miss the limited Earth-to-Mars launch window.