Proton Crash May Delay Other Launches, Including ISS Cargo Craft

Proton Crash May Delay Other Launches, Including ISS Cargo Craft

The crash and explosion of a Proton-M rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome last night (Eastern Daylight Time) may delay other launches, including the Progress M-20M cargo spacecraft scheduled for launch to the International Space Station (ISS) later this month.

The repercussions of the dramatic launch failure, shown in this footage on YouTube, are still being assessed, but Russia’s RIA Novosti reported the possible delay to the Progress M-20M launch today.  The launch is currently scheduled for July 27.  RIA Novosti said work at the Cosmodrome might be “suspended for the next two to three months because of contamination,” though it was unclear how much of the sprawling facility would be affected.

The Proton-M carried 600 tons of heptyl, amyl and kerosene rocket fuel, which ignited in a spectacular blaze as the rocket wobbled, rolled and broke apart during its 17 second flight, crashing about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) from its launch pad.  The launch took place at 10:38 pm EDT last night (8:38 am local time today, July 2, at Baikonur).

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to set up an investigation board and “demanded a list of the guilty persons, including high-ranking Roskosmos officials,” according to Russia’s official ITAR-TASS news agency.  Roskosmos is Russia’s space agency, headed by Vladimir Popovkin.  

Rogozin was put in charge of the Russian space sector in December 2011 after a Soyuz rocket became the sixth in what continues to be an increasingly long list of Russian launch failures since December 2010.   Popovkin replaced Anatoly Perminov in 2011.  Perminov reportedly was fired in the aftermath of the December 2010 Proton launch failure that similarly doomed a set of three GLONASS satellites. 

The GLONASS system, similar to the U.S. GPS system, is a top priority of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but more generally the series of failures in a variety of Russian rockets is a blow to Russia’s reputation as a commercial space launch services provider.  Russian officials have ordered reviews of what is going in the Russian aerospace sector and demanded changes, but the failures continue.

Proton is Russia’s largest launch vehicle and is used to launch a variety of payloads, including commercial communications satellites to geostationary orbit.  Commercial launches are marketed by International Launch Services (ILS).  Proton has been in service since 1965, with many upgrades over those decades.  The Proton-M version was first launched in 2000, and has a capacity of about 21,000 kilograms (46,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit or 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) to geostationary transfer orbit, slightly less than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy.

Russia is the world leader in market share for commercial launches over the past 5 years (2008-2012), with 51 percent of the market for all of its rockets, but not including launches by the multinational Sea Launch AG.  Russia’s Energia RSC is a 95 percent owner of Sea Launch.  It had another 13 percent of the market over those 5 years according to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s 2012 annual report.  Sea Launch suffered a launch failure of its own earlier this year.

Editor’s Note:  The scheduled launch date for Progress M-20M is shown as July 27 in the RIA Novosti article, but NASA’s ISS website says July 24 (NASA calls it “ISS Progress 52” because it would be the 52nd Progress dispatched to the ISS, but there have been many more Progress launches in the history of that program).

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