Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Short Sharp Science - Space radiation killed Russian Mars mission

Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission was felled by space radiation, a new report concludes.
The ambitious mission was supposed to bring a soil sample of the Martian moon Phobos back to Earth. But it got stuck in Earth orbit and eventually plunged into the ocean on 15 January.
The head of a commission that investigated the incident suggested in January that the probe's operations might have been accidentally disrupted by a US radar beam from the Marshall Islands. But that provoked sceptical reactions from some Russian scientists, who said it was an "exotic" idea.
Now, the commission says space radiation – in the form of energetic charged particles – is to blame, in a summary of its final report (in Russian) posted on the Russian space agency's website last week.
"Heavy ion bombardment corrupted program code in two components of the probe's computer, which resulted in the loss of the probe," Russian news agency RIA Novosti said about the findings on Friday.
A Discovery News article posted today suggested a programming error was to blame instead. However, the story appeared to be based on an outdated 31 January report from RIA Novosti, written a few days before the commission announced its conclusions.
Louis Friedman, former executive director of the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group based in California that had an astrobiology experiment on board the probe, said the spacecraft's loss could have been prevented.
The use of equipment that did not stand up to the radiation environment of space was a "design failure by the spacecraft engineers that might have been caught had they performed adequate component and system testing prior to flight", he said. "The Phobos-Grunt failure emphasizes the unforgiving nature of space exploration, where cutting corners in the spacecraft development, especially in testing, can be fatal."

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