The U.S. Didn’t Shoot Down Russia’s Mars Probe. But It Could Have.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 11 2012 1:57 PM

The U.S. Didn’t Shoot Down Russia’s Mars Probe. But It Could Have.

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A Zenit-2SB rocket, carrying the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos –Soil) spacecraft , blasts off from the Russian leased Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome early on November 9, 2011.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Sometime this weekend, Phobos-Grunt will crash into the Indian Ocean. The Russian space probe was supposed to return a sample from Mars' moon Phobos (hence the name—grunt means ground in Russian). But after its launch on Nov. 9, 2011, the upper stages failed, and it remained stuck in low-Earth orbit, so low that atmospheric drag will destroy it.

It took more than a decade and some $163 million to build Phobos-Grunt, so it its inexplicable failure was understandably frustrating for the Russians. But in a bizarre interview yesterday, Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Russia's space agency, alluded to foul play: "We don’t want to accuse anybody, but there are very powerful devices that can influence spacecraft now. The possibility they were used cannot be ruled out," he said, in the New York Times' translation. He insinuated that the United States was to blame: "the frequent failure of our space launches, which occur at a time when they are flying over the part of Earth not visible from Russia, where we do not see the spacecraft and do not receive telemetric information, are not clear to us."

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The claim that Phobos-Grunt was shot down is absurd. But that's not because it would be hard to do. It's easy—if you can launch satellites—to destroy them, and to do so with deniability isn't much harder. Had the United States wanted to destroy Phobos-Grunt, it could have. But it’s hard to fathom why—not least of all because doing so would have messed with a couple of scientific missions piggy-backed onto the Russian probe: a Chinese Mars orbiter and an experiment run by the Planetary Society, an American space advocacy group co-founded by Carl Sagan.

More importantly, there is a global taboo on war in space. The U.S. would not have broken it arbitrarily to destroy a scientific probe. No country has ever (so far as is known in the unclassified literature) attacked another’s satellite. When China tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own satellites in 2007, it provoked an international outcry because it created more than 4,000 new bits of debris, increasing by almost half the amount of trackable "space junk.” The U.S. broke a de facto moratorium on space weapon testing in 2008, when a missile launched from a Navy cruiser destroyed an American satellite, the first such test since 1985 (when an F-15-launched missile was the weapon of choice).

The U.S. has by far the most invested in space. That gives it the most to lose. Military hawks talk about space as the "ultimate high ground." This is silly—space is high ground, sure enough, and tremendously useful militarily. But spacecraft are (and always will be) fragile, vulnerable things, unlike castles or forts built on normal, non-ultimate high grounds.

Popovkin’s speculation is almost certainly incorrect—and, I suspect, was likely a bit of deliberate nationalist pandering, perhaps not meant to be taken seriously. But there are two reasons it’s worrisome. The first is that it’s hard to prove he’s wrong, so when the next, more militarily useful, spacecraft fails, the accusation can resurface. The other is that Popovkin, and the Sputniks he controls, are the only way to get American astronauts to the International Space Station.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the e-book The Pioneer Detectives: Did a Distant Spacecraft Prove Einstein and Newton Wrong? Follow him on Twitter.

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