What caused the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission to crash into the Pacific Ocean last month? A commission has determined that cosmic rays triggered failures in chips on the spacecraft’s computer, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com.
On 3 February, the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos presented the findings of an investigative commission for the doomed Russian probe, which was the largest planetary probe in history — and which was to return a few hundred grams of soil from the Mars moon Phobos. Although the mission’s launch on 8 November went smoothly, the spacecraft stalled in orbit. It slowly descended into Earth’s atmosphere, culminating in a 15 January crash in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Russian space officials searched for a scapegoat, even insinuating that US radar could be blamed. They seem to have settled on cosmic rays, charged particles that can befoul most electronics.
But according to Lou Friedman, former director of the Planetary Society, a non-profit organization for space-based research based in Pasadena, California, even the cosmic-ray theory is probably overstated, because the probe was still within the sheltering environment of the Earth’s magnetosphere. Friedman, who was principal investigator for an astrobiology experiment on the spacecraft, says that the whole affair points to the unforgiving nature of space exploration.