The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was dealt a pretty significant blow in the last couple of months with the failure of a high-profile space probe called Phobos Grunt (Ground). The probe, which was launched on November 9th, was scheduled to travel to Phobos, one of the Martian moons, take surface samples, and return to Earth. It didn’t quite make it to Mars, getting stranded in earth’s upper orbit when a late-stage rocket failed to fire. The satellite is now stuck in low orbit over Earth, and is scheduled to return to earth in little tiny pieces somewhere over the Indian Ocean between today and Monday. Vladimir Popovkin, director of Roscosmos, is convinced the U.S. shot it down.
With characteristically Russian tactlessness, Popovkin attempted to redirect the blame for the mission’s failure, saying that the mission was sabotaged by an anti-satellite weapon. "We don't want to accuse anybody,” he said accusingly, “but there are very powerful devices that can influence spacecraft now." Of course, that’s a bit like saying, “I want to very diplomatically blame the U.S. for disrupting our space mission because they’re the only ones capable of doing it.”
It’s not entirely implausible that Russian spacecraft would run into problems over the western hemisphere. The United States employs the vast majority of low-orbit technology and it wouldn’t be the first time that some other country’s launch was interfered with by some our satellite detritus. Unfortunately for Russia, many of the spacecraft problems that occur for them, occur over the western hemisphere where they do not receive telemetric data and are unable to monitor their spacecraft’s progression (because the planet is in the way). That leaves any perceived failures or hitches in their launch plans or craft open to all types of wild speculation, such as the U.S. using their space probes for target practice. Not only did Popovkin imply U.S. sabotage, but another Russian official previously in charge of the country’s early warning system, more specifically insinuated that the U.S. may have used high-powered electromagnetic beam to disrupt the probe. A non-existant but buzz-worthy piece of technology.
None of this really makes sense in the realistic way that Americans are no dependent upon the Russian space program for the bulk of their continued study and manned spaceflight while our own program has been shut down. President Obama ended the NASA manned spaceflight program this year, focusing instead on private investment and a more privat sector approach to space exploration. In the meantime, the U.S. is dependent upon any and all efforts to penetrate space by the Russians. Shooting down a Russian Mars space probe just doesn’t make sense. However, an honest inquiry was never in Popovkin’s agenda. Instead, it was attempting to deflect blame for a fairly high-profile national blunder.