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Programming Error May Have Doomed Russian Phobos-Grunt Probe

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jan-2012
Updated: 17-Jan-2012 12:49 PM

Russia's Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) Mars mission may have failed because of a computer programming error according to unofficial Russian sources.

Officially, a special Russian commission headed by former Russian space agency director Yuri Koptev continues to investigate what led to the failure.  However, RussianSpaceWeb.com's Anatoly Zak reports today on a story in the Russian publication Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space News) that postulates that "the most likely culprit ... was a programming error in the flight control system." 

Zak's report goes on to say that post-failure tests showed the processor on the main flight control computer would overload in 90 percent of cases.  "Following the initial failure, as ground controllers apparently succeeded in activating the X-band transmitter onboard the spacecraft, new problems arose" because the transmitter was not deactivated when the spacecraft was "flying in the shadow of the Earth for prolonged periods of time."  Consequently, "the probe slowly drained its recharable [sic] power batteries and then its emergency power source ... leading to a complete deactivation...."

The Novosti Kosmonavtiki story reportedly is based on information from sources in the Russian aerospace industry.  It appears to have more credibility than an alternate theory being publicized in other Russian media sources that a U.S. radar inadvertently damaged the spacecraft while it was being used to study an asteroid.   Even one Russian news source, RIA Novosti, discounted the idea in a story today entitled "Russian Scientists Mock U.S. Radar Theory on Mars Probe."  Koptev said that his commission will conduct an experiment to prove or disprove that theory.

The Koptev commission is scheduled to make its report to Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, later this month, which then will report to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin.   Rogozin was recently put in charge of Russia's space sector, in addition to responsibiities in overseeing the atomic energy and defense sectors.


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