Cosmic rays blamed for spaceship crash

Posted by Emma Woollacott

After initial suggestions that death-ray-wielding Americans were to blame, Russian space agency Roscosmos has concluded that its lost Martian probe, Phobos-Grunt, was cripped by space radiation.

The spacecraft veered off course shortly after its launch in November, descending to Earth last month. Notably, some Russian officials suggested that a US radar station could have inadvertently brought Phobos-Grunt down, with some more excitable observers claiming there was nothing inadvertent about it at all.

Now, though, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin has said that the probe was likely brought down by cosmic radiation which, he says, affected some low-quality imported microchips in particular - which accounted for 60 percent of the chips in the system.

In a televised interview, he said that the radiation caused two units of the onboard computer to reboot and go into an energy-saving restart mode. Officials from Lavochkin, the spacecraft's builder, would face punishment, he said.

If true, the space radiation theory is deeply embarrassing for Russia. Hundreds of communications satellites survive cosmic radiation every day.

Popovkin also said that technical problems with the descent capsule meant the launch of the next US-Russian manned launch to the International Space Station, originally scheduled for March, was to be delayed by up to six weeks.

This could have a knock-on effect on other launches, fueling concerns about the US' reliance on Russia for ISS missions.