14 Nov 2011

Troubles in Russian space industry

7:57 am on 14 November 2011

An unsuccessful launch of a Mars moon probe by Russia last week is seen as a consequence of crimped budgets and a brain drain of personnel.

An unmanned craft launched last Wednesday did not leave Earth's orbit and it may drop into the atmosphere within days.

Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said an engine failed to fire on the unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe after it reached Earth's orbit.

The space agency has only two weeks to fix the problem before a window for reaching Mars closes.

It was the latest in a series of unsuccessful launches by Russia this year - which were meant to mark the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin.

In January, Russia launched Elektro-L, a high-altitude weather satellite, but the country's chief meteorologist has since said its data is ineffective.

A satellite navigation system was lost on launching last year.

A $US265 million, European-built communication satellite that was to service Russia for the next half decade, was lost on launching.

A cargo flight taking supplies to astronauts in the International Space Station, crashed in August, delaying the launch of a new crew.

The Soviet Union began the space age over half a century ago by launching the satellite Sputnik.

While its rockets are the only ships flying crews to the International Space Station, Russia has not gone beyond Earth's orbit for 20 years.

Meanwhile, the United States has sent probes deep into the solar system. India, China and Japan have also sent unmanned missions to the moon and beyond.

Small market share

Russia carries out some 40% of global space launches, but Roskosmos says it had only 3% of the total global market in 2010, which was worth $US267 billion.

Popovkin said last month that "deep" sector problems are at the root of recent mishaps.

Russia has boosted its budget for space by some 40% per year over the last five years, spending $US5.5 billion in 2010, according to Euroconsult.

But years of low funding have resulted in a brain drain covering a whole generation.

Experts say that of some 250,000 people employed by the sector, 90 percent are either older than 60 or younger than 30.

Salaries averaging 26,000 roubles ($US850) per month fail to attract new personnel.

Russia now buys its electronics from Europe. The RIA news agency reported earlier this year that up to 80% of the equipment on its spacecraft is imported.