back to article Foreign sabotage suspected in Phobos-Grunt meltdown

The head of the Russian space agency has hinted that foreign sabotage might be to blame for the malfunction of the country's Martian space probe, Phobos-Grunt. Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Russian newspaper Izvestia (in Russian, translation by Google Translate) that he had no complete explanation for the frequent …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well, its understandable ...

    ... why they would wish to seek to apportion blame, especially since there is a successful probe on its way to Mars right now. One that isn't theirs.

    But if indeed sabotage is a genuine consideration and they have any grounds to seriously believe that, looking close to home would be the place to start, them widen the net -- if they can -- on the basis of evidence.

    I myself think it was a simple systems failure (a twenty pence component went phutt most likely) but the implications of this remains to be seen as it falls back to Earth. Right now, that could be more relevant, to all of us.

  2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    Sounds like clutching at straws to me. The first bit seemed OK, but then he blamed it on lauching it when they said they would (how is that related to a foreign power's ability for sabotage?)

    However there are various reports of some of the issues found during some recent failure investigations, and if there has been sabotage, more like it is people deliberately leaving pieces of rag in pipes or putting an extra minus in software code, etc.

    It's only a guess, but my money is on things being streached beyond breaking point; insufficient resources, people working too many hours and making mistakes while their brain is out to lunch after another long shift.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Very worried manager seeks to blame outsiders.

      Here we have a man who has one of the nastiest people on Earth at the moment (Putin) on his back for messing up a high-profile project. His investigations so far have shown that: 1) His management is of a very, very poor standard 2) His staff are so badly paid that it is barely understandable why they are there at all, except that they care very, very much about what they do (i.e motivated people) 3) He ignored advice from these motivated people that some components were getting a tad elderly and that they carried risk to the project, and 4) He ignored advice from these motivated people that code was not properly debugged, and that this carried risk to the project. He now has two options: a) Explain this Putin and say "It was all my fault" and spend the rest of his life in whatever the Gulag Archipelago has become, or b) blame foreign sabotage, in the hope that Putin will believe this and not send him to whatever the Gulag Archipelago has become for not spotting foreign sabotage earlier. This is clearly the option he has chosen, as the lesser of two evils. Whatever happens, he is screwed, but he gets to buy some time where there is still food and heating.* *Apologies if there are very happy residents of the area known to me only from Solzhenitsyn's book - I'm simply trying to make a point that this man is out in the cold with few options for professional survival. [Apologies for the bad formatting - the forum doesn't seem to be reading paragraph breaks today!]
    2. Ammaross Danan
      Coat

      It happens

      Shows what happens when you cut funding (or simply don't provided enough cash in the first place) for a space agency: you get expensive duds rather than results. I wonder if the USA is watching this and learning....likely not....

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Or it could be home-grown

    The Russian space industry wages are an absolute pittance right now.

    One of the more interesting theories is that it's a visible & embarrassing failure big enough to get some sort of official attention to the situation, and being unmanned, doesn't threaten any cosmonaut's safety... basically "we flip connector, it flies backward, da?"

    Since things really can't get worse, most of the techs have little to lose.

  4. Chris Miller
    WTF?

    Breaking news

    Putin declares war on Martians. Send for Captain Scarlet!

  5. Anonymous Coward 101
    Facepalm

    Yeah, it was a NATO tractor beam rather than a simple arse up. Just like it is Russian spies controlling my thoughts when I do stupid stuff.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Whatever makes you think we're Russian?

      1. Someone Else Silver badge
        Coat

        You do!

  6. Mikel
    Alien

    I'm not saying it was aliens

    But it was aliens.

  7. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge

    Vodka is a more likely explanation

    Russians have one of the highest alcohol consumptions per capita in the world. Someone making a mistake while drunk is a far more likely cause.

    See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/8343090/Russias-alcohol-and-tobacco-consumption-by-numbers.html for details of Russia's alcohol problem.

    1. Peter Simpson 1
      Coat

      Wasit built on a Friday?

      //bottle of Vodka in the pocket
  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It was the CIA

    They invented a time machine, sent a spy back in time and reversed the directions on how to install the batteries.

    Much more plausible then poor budgets, cheap parts and a bad design may be at fault. Plus no one gets shot if it is those horrible foreigners that are responsible.

    P.S. The time machine was invented so CIA could go back in time and place a fake birth certificate for President Obama. The birthers were right after all!

    1. Ivan Headache
      Unhappy

      I've got this image in my head

      of poor budgies flying backwards.

      And I can't shift it.

  9. Fibbles

    Speculation

    Call me cynical but if they were about to lose their investment because they were fast approaching deadlines on agreements with ESA and the expiry dates of some components, is it not possible that Roscosmos deliberately launched a duff probe so they could claim the whole thing back on insurance?

    1. laird cummings
      Black Helicopters

      That's an awfully nice satellite you've got there. Be a shame if something happened to it...

  10. vincent himpe

    i blame ...

    too much wodka.. the damn thing is flying backwards ! ( with its solar panels pointed away from the sun )

    either that ore some coder didn't know what the sign bit was for ...

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      "either that ore some coder didn't know what the sign bit was for ..."

      Yeah, but they found that after fueling, and not wanting a coder to put in yet another mistake, they fixed it in hardware instead because it was easier!! (Kid you not)

      Normally it's doing software mods to fix broken H/W...

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Could it possibly be down to something as simple as...

    ...what the Ruskies are building these is pure CRAP?

    1. Heironymous Coward
      Paris Hilton

      They've lost fewer cosmonauts getting into &out of space than the Americans. And on a much tighter budget.

      Just curious - did you have the same attitude about NASA when Challenger and Columbia didn't perform as planned.

      OT: Nice troll...

      BTW, I think you're missing a "days" in there somewhere.

      Need about 4 icons for this. Damn. Paris, as default, for no good reason...

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        @ Heironymous Coward

        I was getting ready to type that you were wrong, but I've just had a look and found that you are quite correct, even allowing for the uncertainty of reports from the Cold War years. The Space Shuttle incidents *really* altered the stats ...
        1. laird cummings
          Boffin

          Mind you, NASA also launched a LOT more people overall, too... re-evaluate on terms of fatalities per flight, eh?

          Depending on how you define it, there have been between 523 and 532 individuals sent into space - of which roughtly 2/3 are/were American. Roughly 20% were/are Russian (or Soviet). 842 total individual American flights, versus 226 individual Russian/Soviet flights. Hmmm.... Puts kind of different spin on things, eh?

          Not to say that the Russkies/soviets are pikers - they're not: They've got 1/3 more TOTAL hours in space than America, despite the paucity in numbers of flights - that means those hardy cosmonauts are really sticking around for the long haul.

      2. ItsNotMe
        FAIL

        Looks like the grammar police have nothing else to do today.

        A Troll trolling on another Troll...how quaint.

  12. Robert E A Harvey

    Russian space chief doesn't want to point any fingers, but...

    ... if he doesn't his arse is on the line

  13. Mike Powers
    Trollface

    Stuxnet strikes again!

    No doubt it was those dastardly Israelis.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What..

    would be gained by a nation attacking a spacecraft going to Mars?

    Would it be willy waving (oh you boys,!!) to show we can do it?

    The spacecraft I assume would have hardened components to protect it from radiation,

    so who has a large enough satellite zapper?

    I assume that the access mechanism is secure?

    Perhaps someone has a jamming capability to prevent access, anywhere in the flight path of the spacecraft?

    Which brings me back to question, why?, there are far more tempting targets up there.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      not that I agree with the finger pointing but...

      plausible deniability,

      If it was just the military launches (Glosnas or whatever its called), then things would start to smell a bit... off.

      However, now we can just laugh at the unusual-for-russias-space-profram misfortune.

    2. Scott Broukell
      Megaphone

      Agree

      Willy waving doesn't get any of us anywhere. We are one race, standing on the same lump of rock, if we can't trust our partner nations in efforts to get off said rock, then we aren't going to get very far at all.

      I hope very much that the days of Russian space technicians being paid in jam jars of vodka to repair cars or fridges are numbered. In the same way that I hope very much that such, global, endeavors bring jobs and training and knowledge to all humanity. If we are determined to get projects like this done properly we need to put aside all our playground angst and pull together.

      These are highly technical and rather costly endeavors and every nation who has had a go has met with failures of some sort, big and small. Many are down to tiny details and minor component failure or programming errors. If we form partnerships in order to maintain the ISS and launch probes etc then we better, effectively, pool our knowledge and resources so we can all learn from our own mistakes - and that needs to be addressed by ALL partners.

      I'm no big fan of space exploration - I think the same resources could, for the moment at least, be better spent on issues that we have down on the ground. But if you want to take a whole bunch of peeps to climb a mountain you can do it two ways: The strong can scramble over the weak and reach their glory at the top, or, the strong can help and assist the weak so that they can all reach the summit.

  15. TomR
    Black Helicopters

    It was Snowball

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowball_%28Animal_Farm%29

    Sadly, there is no pig icon.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Blaming 'Foreign Involvement' is fashionable in Russia these days...

    Not so long ago Putin blamed protests against vote rigging on the U.S. So RosCosmos (Russian Space Agency) just follows the suit. It is much easier this way.

    However, in March 2011 an engineer working for NPO Lavochkin (creator of Phobos-Grunt) published an open letter to the head of RosCosmos, where he describes an awful state of his NPO: capable engineers left long ago, there is nobody to replace them since salaries are laughable, and management is too corrupt to care. See http://open-letter.ru/letter/26645 (Google Translate works reasonably well)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward And I guess that dusting stuff off and hoping for "third time lucky" isn't really a great strategy to go with, either.
    2. PT

      No capable engineers left?

      So I guess now it's the Russian media's turn to start wailing about the shortage of engineers and programmers, and to demand that the colleges turn out many more of them.

      There is no staffing problem that can't be solved with money. Unfortunately that's the last solution that is ever tried.

  17. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Encryption?

    Since the probe is several million miles away from any physical influence, the only way a foreign power could sabotage it is by sending commands. Are we to infer that the world's space agencies spend squillions of bucks on expensive launch systems for even more expensive payloads and don't bother to secure the comms to and from ground control?

    Now *that's* embarrassing! Remind me again, what century is this?

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'd be inspecting dormant volcanoes in Japan if I were them

    and checking my list of enemies for owners of white cats

  19. keitai
    Mushroom

    Blame the Chinese

    American components, Russian Components - all made in china.

  20. The Man Who Fell To Earth
    Boffin

    Typical Russian Response

    Never take responsibility, especially for cutting corners & sloppy work. Always blame some conspiracy.

  21. Local Group
    Holmes

    What about this?

    The Russian rockets don't malfunction with peeps on board. Only with thingies.

    1. laird cummings
      Mushroom

      Not true, sadly. Though they more generally fail on the way back, rather than on the way up. Either that, or on the launch pad, with lots and lots of engineers and technicians around.

      1. Local Group

        Okay

        2 Russians died in space. 3 died training.

        OTOH, 13 Americans + 1 Israeli died in space. 8 died training.

        1. laird cummings

          Again, compare vs. flights (and whilst you're at it, add the hours of training). Much more comparable.

  22. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    What would be gained...?

    @Aimee

    "What would be gained by a nation attacking a spacecraft going to Mars?"

    Well, just as an exercise, let us construct a reasonably plausible conspiracy theory...

    1 - The Americans have just recently built a small aerodynamic orbital craft. This has the capability of being launched in one orbit, then changing its orbit to another to match a target, then returning back again - all in a portion of an orbit while the target is out of view of its owners. So they have the means to undetectably deliver a short-range damaging high energy pulse to an orbiting target should they want to...

    2 - NASA funds are being wound down, and the US are going to rely on Russian rocketry for launches for a while. A lot of people won't like this. In particular, there were a lot of 'spook' funds hidden in NASA budgets - these will be at risk. So there would be an interest in making Russian space technology (which, up to now, has looked superb) look unreliable. And, surprise, surprise, Russian space technology HAS suddenly started to look unreliable.

    3 - No one wants to interfere with manned missions. The fallout and inquiries resulting from a failed manned mission would be uncontrollable. But the odd scientific or commercial package - there would be far less investigation of those. And a Mars mission, which presumably has the best Russian reliability built in - well, if that went wrong it would be a very good reason to keep NASA skills operational....

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      @Dodgy Geezer

      I was soooo going to downvote you, until I paused and thought again. Whilst a bit in the realm of some not-so-brilliant spy-lit author (Tom Clancey or someone), there is enough evidence to suggest that this isn't utterly implausible. The Leftpondians could so easily decide to handicap space travel because they can't play any more ...
      1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        It is nice...

        ...to hear of people 'thinking again'. that is probably the only hope for humanity.....

        With regard to the item, it should be noted that:

        1 - the West (and particularly America) tend to view adventure films and science fiction as coherent proposals to base foreign policy and technical procurement on.

        2 - I have had some professional contact with spooks. The sort of things they believe, and the proposals they make for addressing issues in the make-believe world they inhabit, would make the above suggestion sound sane...

        3 - the Yanks already have a strong track record of this sort of thing, and would live to make use of this http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/04/21/x37b_secret_launch_options/

  23. Local Group
    Childcatcher

    Down to earth conspiracy theories

    From the American side. PUNISHMENT

    1) Russia has been extremely uncooperative in the matter of sanctions against Iran. Not nice

    2) Russia has sent a fleet to Syrian port of Tartus. Not nice.

    3) Russia had a hissy fit about NATO placing anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic and moved Iskandar missles into its western region around Kaliningrad. Not nice.

    From the Russian side. DECEPTION

    For less than a million dollars apiece (a tin can full of gasoline, old Pravdas, and some white phosporus), Russia can throw the West off guard by feigning incompetent rocketry. Just as some of the wisest contributors here at el reg, think that Russia's space program has lost it's thrust, probably many of the Pentagon anaylists have too.

    Russia may be just fluttering around like a mother bird who pretends to have a broken wing to divert the attention of a perceived predator—that would be us—from the eggs in its nest to itself. Or in Russia's case to the lack of competence in getting aggressive missiles into orbit, while their Doomsday Satelite is getting its last coat of varnish.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
      Facepalm

      @Local Group

      So, in short, your theory is that Russia wants to conquer the world, or, at least Europe. Ummmm - the 1960's called, and they want you back - very, very soon.
      1. Local Group

        Russia. Conquer the world? Hardly.

        On the planet I live on, only America fits your description.

        I don't know how far down the Peak Oil motorway we've gone (and I wouldn't tell you if I did), but we are going to be out of oil this century. And at the moment there is no adequate replacement for gasoline and the internal combustion engine to drive the economy that Adam Smith Capitalism has evolved into.

        By my lights everything points to a monster battle for the Iranian oil deposits and the rights to drill in the Caspian Sea. It looks like Russia, China, Pakistan come down on one side and the finger-in-every-pie America on the other. Why are we in Afghanistan? To monitor Pakistan? Or to establish bases for the pincer invasion of Iran?

        What most students of Peak Oil neglect to consider is the role of the military in the age of Peak Oil.

        There can't be any doubt the military thinkers consider, as crude production diminishes, that they should get the lion's share of what is pumped up and not the economy.

        The only thing that stands between a Napoleonic America spreading it's beneficence to the four corners and the seven seas is the axis of China and Russia. Russia did it before. Maybe they'll do it again

      2. Local Group
        Boffin

        Intractable One

        Just a couple of loose ends.

        "The winner of the 1948 tournament, Russian Mikhail Botvinnik, started an era of Soviet dominance in the chess world. Until the end of the Soviet Union, there was only one non-Soviet champion, American Bobby Fischer (champion 1972–75).[55] Botvinnik revolutionized opening theory. Previously Black strove for equality, to neutralize White's first-move..."

        I bet you don't know how to neutralize White's first-move. Every 9 year old Russian child does.

        In fact one of those kids could check-mate you while you were still lining up your pawns in a straight row and making all your knights and bishops look directly at the enemy.

        Would a nation whose national pastime is chess and not darts, scruple to make up lies, dissemble at press conferences and accuse others of unscrupulous behavior to protect the motherland from likes of Newt Gingrich? I think not.

        I do enjoy your comments very much. :-)

        1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

          @LG - a bit late for you to see this, perhaps.

          I am married to someone that grew up in on of the Soviet states (she was one of the people on the streets when it all changed), and her education in logic and strategy is astounding. I am fully aware of the differences in the way that (at least some of) the people educated on the other side of the Iron Curtain were educated. I don't know if it is still the case.

          I don't know how to neutralise anyone's moves in chess - I was selected to be in the school's chess team when I was a child, and grew very quickly to hate it, choosing to lose quickly so I didn't have to stay at a table opposite a(nother?) geek with halitosis for any length of time!

  24. Qu Dawei
    Coat

    Ok - let's run with the conspiracies...

    Suppose, just for fun, that there realy was a conspiracy here. How about this one:

    Russia, through poor economic performance, corruption, embezzlesment, lack of competent engineers (because pay is laughably small and inadequate for a mouse to live on), cannot afford to build phobos-grunt so that it will work properly. However, it is obliged to launch it, etc or other interests will demand money back which it no longer has (see above). So, it builds a plausible-looking fake satellite. This fake satellite must not be allowed to progress far because it will be discovered to be fake. Therefore, a catastrophic launch failure is arranged. Unfortunately, this goes wrong for reasons given above, and we are left with a defunct (fake) satellite that will rain down on us sometime around 15 January 2012, which could give time for its fake status to be discovered. The Russian head of its space program suggests that the failure was a conspiracy (but he does not say whether the failure of the planned catastrophic failure was the failure he was talking about, or just the failure of the satellite mission. This achieves two aims for him: (a) following the establishment line, and (b) covering his arse by saying that he told the truth (but committing the fallacy of equivocation by so doing).

    Thus we have a conspiracy about a conspiracy, all wrapped up in a conspiracy itself. This is so good, I'm sure some of the conspiracy nutters will conslude that it must therefore be absolutely true.

    1. Malmesbury
      The sad truth is that you are not far off the mark. Have a look at the threads on nasaspaceflight.com - translation of Russian language stuff on what happened. Phobos-Grunt was slapped together with no testing. Software being uploaded while it was on the pad. Known defects - they attempted to fix electrical miss-wiring with a soldering iron on the pad as well. With the hydrazine already on board. The consensus is/was that it would have been incredible if it had made it out of orbit.
    2. Local Group
      Mushroom

      @Qu Dawei

      Why would Roscosmos build a plausible-looking fake satellite? So that when the illiterate shepherd on Ceylon discovers the wreckage, he doesn't say "Where's the real satellite? This is a plausible-looking fake. Bah!"

      "Rain down on us?" Like most of it doesn't get burnt up In the atmosphere.

      Maybe every orbit of this Russian rocket had been programed into it from take off including the landing in the Indian Ocean.

      If you really want to get conspiratorial, you know those six satellites that were successfully launched

      on December 28, 2011?

      "PARIS — A Russian Soyuz rocket on Dec. 28 successfully launched six Globalstar mobile-communications satellites in the third of a planned four Soyuz liftoffs scheduled to place Globalstar’s 24 second-generation spacecraft into low Earth orbit, Globalstar and launch services provide Arianespace announced."

      Maybe they went into orbit at the same time Phobos Grunt silently released it's six stealthy projectiles which were controlled by the communications and aimed at taking over the world. (Que Tchaikovsky' 1812 Overture)

  25. Dries Marais

    Phobos is not to be investigated

    Every previous Russian attempt to land a spacecraft on Phobos has been "sabotaged" - within Martian space.

    Someone is not impressed by attempts to analyse Phobos surface. It is WAY, WAY lighter than it size demands.

    Is it hollow?

    Why? And how did that come about?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward Well done: you've located the Bond-villain's secret hide-out!
  26. bharq
    Holmes

    so basically...

    ...they built the thing for half the price with underpaid engineers, took the money from ESA and the chinese and distributed it to the party officials while putting the blame on 'everyone but us'?

    maybe these Russians are smarter than they appear...

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      No, not smarter ...

      ... just standard operating procedure. How do you think so many people got so rich in the short time between Glasnost and now?
  27. Mips
    Childcatcher

    Father I cannot tell a lie..

    ..twas was me that chopped down your tree. Now it is just an old log waiting to fall to earth.

  28. Andy Watt
    FAIL

    Not pointing fingers, but...

    If anyone at the top of the Russian Space Agencies are pointing fingers, it's probably in the dark, in the wrong direction. here endeth the metaphor.
  29. Peter Mc Aulay
    Coat

    Exit strategy

    Sounds like maybe he's preparing to apply for a job with the Syrian government.
  30. Frank Bitterlich
    Alien

    So...

    .. we cobbled the whole thing together from old pinball machine parts, and we knew it would fall apart all by itself very soon. So we decided to hurl it into space as quickly as possible. For some reason it failed, though, and we have no clue why. And the fact that we don't know why is especially suspicious. Do you need any more proof that it was shot down by a giant secret yankee laser cannon? Na zdravje, comrades!
  31. mhenriday
    Big Brother

    But all the pundits wisely nod their heads in unison

    when some commentator blames US financial and industrial problems on Chinese «manipulation» of the RMB exchange rate. Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi.... Henri
    1. Local Group
      Childcatcher

      You are very wise, sir.

      Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur

  32. Invulner

    I'd like to point out

    I'd like to point out that most of the Russian article referenced was about the head explaining how their funds aren't nearly enough for anything and how the Phobos mission was already risky with only about 50% success rate. It also had to be launched right then because of the launch window and expiring components.

    The "conspiracy" part was very brief and he mentioned that in 2013 they'll launch two more Luch-5 relay satellites to help prevent the out-of-range problems.

  33. Geronimo

    ACCIDENTS HAPPEN

    ONE SHOULD EXPECT ACCIDENTS TO HAPPEN IN COMPLEX LAUNCHES

    It is pretty clear the probe was deployed facing backwards...i.e. with solar panels away from the sun; which suggests a programming error.

    It is clear that the Russians know it was their screw-up ....In gangsterish Russian mafia style -Medvedev has already personally threatened to rain down retribution on the luckless engineers--has including criminal prosecutions. (Bet they wish they'd worked for NASA !) He said:

    "Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty,

    I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment," he said.

  34. json

    Happens with Golf all the time..

    .. there's too much wind.

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