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Counterfeit microchips to blame in crash of Russian Mars spacecraft? video >>

February 1, 2012

Back on November 10, a space official at the Russian Defense Ministry placed a worried call to the Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, about the impending doom of a joint Russian-Chinese Mars orbiter spacecraft, the Phobos-Grunt:

"I think we have lost the Phobos-Grunt," he said, according to ABC News via "It looks like a serious flaw. Past experience shows that efforts to make the engines work will likely fail."

Early in January that is just what happened, the failed systems consigning a 14-ton Russian launch vehicle, and its Chinese orbiter payload, to the status of space junk.  The $165-million spacecraft was designed to retrieve soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos, but had stalled in earth orbit. One by one, its systems had rebooted and then shut themselves down.

A Zenit rocket launches into space carrying Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft toward Mars. Liftoff occured on Nov. 9, 2011 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  Counterfeit microchips are among the suspected causes of its crash last month.

Maps published on quasi-official Russian military sites traced the doomed trajectory of the Phobos-Grunt as its remains hurtled into the Pacific Ocean.

Within 24 hours, recriminations began to fly.  

That was in January.  Yesterday, Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin added a spectacular charge, saying foreign-made counterfeit or defective microchips were partly to blame for the failure of the $165-million spacecraft, designed to retrieve soil samples from the Martian moon Phobos.

Let it be said that the assertion was only the latest fingering someone, anyone, other than the Russian space program.  Popovkin at one point point the finger of blame at a possible burst of space radiation, while earlier it had been interference from U.S. radars.   All the while, some in the international technical community joined a chorus of cynicism about a lack of Russian scientific skill, quality control or project management.   At this writing, most of these charges have been debunked.  But the possibility of a defective counterfeit in the system, as described by the official Russian report on the final fate of Phobos, deserves attention.

Radiation as a cause was cast into doubt by Russian sources themselves, saying that lack of preparation for such an event would be a mark of almost unthinkable negligence in planning.  Russian officials also eventually admitted that U.S. radar was not involved, and in any case the possibility of ground radars interfering with low orbiting space vehicles always seemed improbable to observers. 

Finding fault with Russian science seems popular outside that country, but one needs to keep this in perspective.  The science establishment has suffered from brain drain in the last decade, but the imposing superstructure of scientific skill built by the old Soviet regime still stands; a university at Voronezh from where the Popovkin made his announcement, itself houses an award-winning aerospace department.  It said that fully 70% of all the scientists in the world were resident in the old Soviet Union.


Of course, this blogger is most interested in the hints that counterfeit microchips or macro-electronics might be the cause.  What points to this, apart from the Russian assertion?

  • Systems on the craft began malfunctioning early, not in a single catastrophic event. One by one, they rebooted, sending themselves into “sleep” mode or shutting down completely. It is much more a profile of systemic failure than external cause.
  • Repeated and major problems on recent Russian space missions: five failures or crashes in a recent short period
  • The Chinese origin of vital equipment. This needs to be mentioned, although it is not a likely suspect.  Since the craft stalled in Earth orbit, the China-produced Mars orbiter, Inho-1, never had a chance to be used.
  • The January 24 publication on a Russian military affairs site of an article on Applied DNA Science's pilot project with an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.  The project aims to authenticate microchips bound for the military, and in that way screen for fakes.  The article illustrated and named our SigNature DNA product, but did not name our company.
  • A more direct, if circumstantial fact: fully one-third of all goods sold in Russia are counterfeit (see our blog post).  This prominently includes aviation, and may have contributed to some of the twenty-four major commercial air crashes of Russian craft in 2011 alone.  Counterfeits are so common, mechanics routinely refer to their use of  'leviye' — the Russian word for "left," which in slang means "fake."

Probably we will never know what caused the Phobos-Grunt to come to grief.  Not, that is, until the Russian government holds an investigation like the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearings in this country back in November, which named specific U.S. combat aircraft in which counterfeit parts were found.  But clearly, there is increasing evidence that counterfeit electronics are already a major threat to health and safety worldwide.