The Russian space agency Roscosmos announced the cause of the Phobos-Grunt space probe failure on Tuesday: it was a software malfunction in its onboard computer. But doubts still persist. Russia’s space industry is currently going through a system-wide crisis which provokes one setback after another.
Why the Martian program failed
On Tuesday morning the newspaper Kommersant, quoting sources from the space industry, reported that the malfunctioning Phobos-Grunt probe to Mars was the result of an error in its onboard computer caused by a software failure. This report was seen as an acknowledgement of a mistake in the computer program.
But in the afternoon, speaking at a meeting on Russia’s space effort, Vladimir Popovkin, Roscosmos director, added some details to the explanation. “Two sets were rebooted and so computer reverted to energy-saving and command-waiting mode,” confirming the story carried by Kommersant. Then he added a new twist: “The most likely cause, according to the commission, was the effect of heavily charged particles on the facility.”
Then he made another clarification. In his view, it was (probably) counterfeit microcircuits that were affected by the exposure. This reference was to imported components with a linear resolution in the lithographic process of 90 nm (instead of 200 nm as in previous equipment).
The facts and data disclosed by Popovkin can be interpreted tentatively and specifically as follows: the Phobos computational facility failed because of the degradation of its electronic core under the impact of cosmic particles.
The question of why the electronics performed so poorly needs a separate investigation. Popovkin’s explanation is rife with inconsistencies and experts are now voicing their doubts. But let us assume that what the space chief reported is true and not an attempt to cover up the real picture.
The use of standard commercial microcircuits instead of radiation-protected parts may be the most likely cause of the sudden failure of the equipment (and the word “counterfeit” goes to support this version).
If it emerges that corruption was involved in fulfilling the probe’s specifications, it could lead to criminal persecution. If, however, it was an ill-formulated request for components, the penalty may be reduced to a few sackings. The public was assured that onboard systems being developed for new probes would be under close scrutiny.
If anything, draconian inspection measures will finally have to be adopted, as Roscosmos top management has been insisting for several months, measures that saved the Bulava project.
An attack from Mars
Yet all sorts of stories were peddled about the Phobos probe in the winter of 2011-2012. First, in an Izvestia interview, Popovkin said he suspected outside interference in the recent series of accidents that have hit Russian spacecraft outside radio contact area.
Then the press leaked information from sources close to the commission: they said they were seriously concerned about the interference of U.S. radar. Eventually, Yury Koptev, the commission head, admitted this suspicion and said there were plans to test it. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, concerned with defense matters, did not rule out the possibility either. There appeared to be enemies everywhere.
For several days, the media and online news services gleefully added to the speculation, while half of them were tired of poking fun at the helpless story, the other half was laboriously and stubbornly digging up any speck of evidence to back the external influence story.
All kinds of conspiracies were proffered, including blaming HAARP in Alaska, a traditional villain, allegedly responsible for numerous misfortunes including tsunamis and earthquakes.
Experts rushed to substantiate these theories with their calculations but soon shook their heads: no, U.S. radar facilities could not have interfered given their limited beam power and their narrow directional parameters. Any accurate hit was highly unlikely.
In the end, even Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, who had not ruled out external influence, backed down a bit, writing in his Twitter, ironically, that “Martians and their dirty tricks” were to blame for the failure.
As the commission continued to keep silent, leaks dripped out, one more conflicting than the next. Indeed, other unpalatable tales followed after the exotic “external impact” theory.
One rumor blamed solar activity which, it claimed, proved too strong for the Phobos, having caused “a plasma cloud” in the atmosphere. Ionosphere experts dismissed this theory out of hand. They also once again buried the fable about the likely involvement of the HAARP project in killing off the Phobos probe.
It was then that information filtered through that the probe might have been let down by its counterfeit chips at a critical moment. The industry rejected the guess with indignation, describing in detail its traditions of strict quality control. But, as was evident later, it was out of line with this response.
Phobos-Grunt failed on the ground
This failure did not emerge out of thin air. The development of the probe was long and difficult with a very checkered history. With work stepped up in 2006, the launch was first scheduled for the end of 2009. But the developers failed to keep this schedule and the launch was put off for two more years, until the fall of 2011.
The official explanation was that some units of the robot which was to pick up soil samples from the Phobos surface were not ready. Unofficially, it was quietly reported that the probe was far from finished and not ready for its mission at all, and that the design of the onboard computational facility and control system had run into formidable difficulties.
Throughout 2011 there were frequent leaks from project developers that the probe was not ready for launch in November. Popovkin admitted this indirectly after the launch, saying the risk was great but the effort worthwhile.
Commenting on the Phobos-Grunt saga, it must be noted that by that time a system-wide crisis had become apparent in the industry in all its naked indecency.
Martians or Americans could not have inflicted, or cannot inflict, more damage on the Russian space industry than it has suffered (and will continue to suffer through inertia) from purely internal reasons: failures in the personnel policy and random and irregular changes in the industry. These purely internal reasons have long been requiring the adoption of internal measures, as distinct from the time-hallowed “fund-allocation and fund-utilization” tandem formula.
Sending a five-billion ruble research project to the bottom of the Pacific because of savings on a Taiwanese microchip (or a mistake in poorly designed software) is too costly even for a leading space power, which many still call Russia out of habit.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.