Roadworks damage Russian space communications

Embarrassment for Russian agency after highway repair team in Moscow knocks out cable, possibly delaying return of crew

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 3:47am


Russia lost the ability to send basic commands to most of its satellites and a segment of the International Space Station (ISS) following a cable failure near Moscow.

The Roscosmos space agency attributed the embarrassing malfunction to basic road repair work near the sprawling Korolyov mission control centre that sits within sight of one of Russia's most heavily used highways.

It later restored its communications after repairing the cable, meaning it would not have to delay Monday's scheduled return of three ISS members who are completing their four-month mission at the space lab.

"The line of communication has been restored. The system of command is working normally," Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov told state media.

Russia has been plagued by a recent series of failed satellite launches and rocket losses that have prompted reshuffles at the top of the space industry.

But the agency has struggled to reform due to chronic under-funding and alleged corruption as well as a long-term inability to replace retiring Soviet-era specialists with fresh talent.

The main subsidiary of Roscosmos is the subject of a 6.5 billion rouble (HK$1.59 billion) embezzlement probe that has fanned speculation over possible new sackings at the top of Russian space command. Roscosmos sought to play down the loss of communication, a scenario for which the agency's head of human space flight, Sergei Krikalyev, said the crew was properly prepared.

"The crew trains for this and it's a normal routine to work without communication," he was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Earlier, space officials were quick to put a brave face on the latest public relations disaster by stressing that both the satellites and the space station had remained functional.

"The cable tear occurred during the road repair work ... and has not impacted the operation of Russian satellites or the International Space Station," Kuznetsov told Interfax news agency.

"We have re-routed our ground-based control facilities and the situation is under control."

Another source said that Russia's military satellites were unaffected by the breakdown and had continued to function as before.

"Communications with the military satellites continue as always," the source told RIA Novosti, a state-owned news agency.

The breakdown in communication had put in doubt the return of three astronauts - including current ISS commander Sunita Williams of Nasa and Akihiko Hoshide of Japan - who have been away from earth since July.

They will leave behind on board the crew of Russia's Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin and Kevin Ford of the United States, who will be joined by a new crew on December 19.

It appeared that most of the immediate problems with the ISS had been averted because the orbiter's communications were being controlled by US officials at the time of the break.

Russian officials said the station was flying over a segment of earth within reach of the telemetry stations of Nasa on Wednesday afternoon Moscow time when the accident occurred.

Interfax said that several vehicles from the Akado company that operates the communications cable had located the site of the tear about six hours after the incident.

The news agency added that the experts refused to speak to the press as they began assessing the extent of the damage on the ground.

Nasa did not issue a comment on the incident.