Image: Phobos-Grunt launch
Oleg Urusov  /  AP
The Zenit-2SB rocket with the Phobos-Grunt probe blasts off from its launch pad at the Cosmodrome Baikonur, Kazakhstan on Nov. 9. Some of the recent failures of Russian spacecraft may have been caused by hostile interference, Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said.
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updated 1/10/2012 4:02:12 PM ET 2012-01-10T21:02:12

Some recent Russian satellite failures may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, Russia's space chief said Tuesday, in comments apparently aimed at the United States.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any specific country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview in the daily Izvestia he noted that some Russian craft had suffered "unexplained" malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation's tracking facilities.

Popovkin spoke when asked about the failure of the $170 million unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe, which was to explore one of Mars' two moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. Engineers in Russia and the European Space Agency have failed to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, and it is expected to fall back to Earth around Jan. 15.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin's comments, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed that foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country's satellites.

Foreign influences?
Popovkin said modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influences.

"I wouldn't like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can't be excluded," he said.

James Oberg, a NASA veteran and NBC News space analyst who has written books on the Russian space program, said Popovkin's comments were a sad example of the Russian cultural instinct to "blame foreigners."

"It's a feature of space launch trajectories that orbital adjustments must be made halfway around the first orbit to circularize and stabilize subsequent orbits," Oberg said in emailed comments. "The Russians must know that simple geography — not evildoers lurking in shadows — dictate where their communications 'blind spots' are. But the urge to shift blame seems strong."

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Oberg said U.S.-Russian frictions in space policy would be particularly worrisome now, in the wake of NASA's retirement of the shuttle fleet.

"Since for the time being we are dependent for human orbital access on Russian space transportation, we are dependent on their proper safety investigations, so we need to encourage correct attitudes towards those problems," he said in a follow-up email. "Even hinting at the hand of 'enemies' is discouraging, and puts our own people in danger from wrong-headed responses."

The failed Phobos mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country's space industries and raised pressure on Popovkin. Space officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging work force.

Popovkin also said in 2013, Russia will launch three new communications satellites that will be able to retransmit signals from other Russian spacecraft as they fly over another hemisphere.

No cause yet determined
A retired Russian general alleged last November that the Phobos-Grunt might have been incapacitated by a powerful U.S. radar. Nikolai Rodionov, who previously was in charge of Russia's early warning system, was quoted as saying that a powerful electromagnetic impulse generated by U.S. radar in Alaska might have affected the probe's control system.

Popovkin said experts have so far failed to determine why the Phobos-Grunt probe's engines failed to fire, but he admitted that the program had suffered from funding shortages that led to some "risky technological solutions."

The spacecraft was supposed to collect soil samples on Phobos and fly them back to Earth in one of the most challenging unmanned interplanetary missions ever. ("Grunt" is the Russian word for ground or soil.) It was Russia's first foray beyond the Earth orbit since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.

Scientists had hoped that studies of Phobos' surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars' gravity, while others think it's a piece of debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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