Lessons from the failed Phobos-Grunt Mars probe: use proper grade components and test them

Last fall, the Russian Space Agency launched the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe.  Its mission was to journey to Mars’ moon Phobos, collect samples and return to Earth.  About 11 minutes after launch, the spacecraft stalled in Earth orbit and went into safe mode.  Most of the craft burned up in the atmosphere, the rest of it fell into the Pacific Ocean on January 15th.

The investigation by the Russian space agency into the cause of the failure determined that non-space grade electronic chips were used in the spacecraft’s design.  Additionally, the report states that there was inadequate testing performed on the spacecraft’s components during the development process.

While there are issues with the official report’s conclusion that radiation caused the failure of the non-space grade components, this episode illustrates the problems that can be missed when there is inadequate testing of all electronic components during the design and development process.  Testing components over a wide range of environmental conditions is necessary to insure that they will work as intended.

Some counterfeit parts are inappropriate grade parts that have been modified (markings, etc.) to appear to be what they aren’t, for example using commercial grade parts in space. The story of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft illustrates why  counterfeit components must be eliminated from the supply chain.

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Author: josephfedericonj

Joseph Federico is Vice President and Director of Operations for NJ MET, Inc., located in Clifton, NJ. He speaks world-wide on current issues in Electronic Component Testing. Among his responsibilities at NJMET, Inc. is heading up its charity programs.

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