Another Launch Failure for Russia

Another Launch Failure for Russia

At first, Russia praised the launch of a Soyuz 2.1v rocket from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Saturday, only the second for this version of Soyuz.  It soon became apparent, however, that one of the two payloads, Kanopus-ST, did not separate from the Volga upper stage.  The two are expected to reenter imminently.

Twitter is ablaze with postings from experts who analyze the Russian space program and the orbital parameters of space objects based on information from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC).  An early announcement in the Russian media that all went according to plan and JSPoC element sets (ELSETS) showing the expected number of objects (three) led to some misunderstanding about what transpired.  The addition of a fourth object this evening (Eastern Standard Time) is adding to the confusion.

Space analyst Bob Christy of (@zarya_info) told by email the problem was “a separation issue between Volga and the payload. The mechanism failed either totally or in part.”  The payload that will soon reenter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, Kanopus-ST (or Canopus-ST), or Kosmos 2511, is a “small military satellite with optical and microwave sensors to monitor naval activity on and below the ocean” according to Christy’s website.   A second payload, Kosmos 2512, did achieve its intended orbit.  It is a small military radar calibration satellite per Christy.

RussianSpaceWeb’s Anatoly Zak (@russianspaceweb) reports that one of the four latches that connect the payload to the upper stage did not open. He describes the long history of the development of Kanopus-ST, which has a UHF radiometer and a camera for optical imaging of land and ocean surfaces.

As discussed via Twitter by orbit analysts T.S. Kelso (@TSKelso), Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) of Jonathan’s Space Report, and Brian Weeden (@brianweeden) of the Secure World Foundation, the fourth object now reported by JSPoC could indicate either the spacecraft finally did separate from the upper stage or is a piece of related debris.  All of it will reenter soon.

Perhaps more important to Russia than the loss of the satellite, however, is its ongoing difficulties in conducting rocket launches.  Its once sterling reputation has been tarnished over the past five years with repeated failures of several different types of rockets.   Another version of Soyuz, the Soyuz 2.1a, which failed to place the Progress M-27M spacecraft loaded with cargo for the International Space Station into the correct orbit in April, is one example, but there are many others.  The failures have led to wholesale changes in Russia’s space organizational structure, but it seems they have not solved all the problems yet.

Other versions of Soyuz, however, like the Soyuz-U used for sending crews to the International Space Station, are highly reliable.

The Soyuz 2.1v made its first flight in 2013.  In one piece of good news for the Russians, the first stage, which performed successfully, is powered by an NK-33 rocket engine. Orbital Sciences Corporation used NK-33s (refurbished in the United States by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26) for the original version of its Antares rocket, but an October 2014 launch failure traced to that engine led the U.S. company to switch to a different Russian engine (RD-181) for future Antares flights. 

Zak tweeted soon after the Soyuz 2.1v launch that it “rehabilitated” the NK-33’s reputation.

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