Russia Suffers Another Soyuz Rocket Failure

Russia Suffers Another Soyuz Rocket Failure

Russia reportedly has suffered another launch failure today of a Soyuz rocket that was intended to place a military communications satellite into orbit.

This version of the Soyuz rocket, Soyuz-2, is slightly different from the Soyuz U rocket that failed in August dooming the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft.   One of the uses of the version that failed today is putting satellites into highly elliptical orbits that have long dwell times over the north pole.   These launches take place from the Plesetsk launch site near the Arctic Circle.  

The Soviet Union pioneered the use of this type of orbit early in the space program because it is advantageous for communications in northern latitudes where most of the country is located.   The communications satellites placed into this orbit for decades were called Molniya (lightning) and the orbit took that name — a Molniya orbit — with an apogee of about 40,000 kilometers and a perigee of less than 1,000 kilometers.  Molniya orbits now are used by different countries primarily for communications and early warning missions.

Russia’s military Molniya satellites are being replaced by a new version, Meridian, and that was the payload today.   According to, the third stage of the Soyuz shut down 421 seconds into the flight and the latest reports indicate “a possible bulging of the combustion chamber No. 1, leading to its burn through and a catastrophic fuel leak.”  That website cites Russian news service Interfax as estimating the “financial loss from the accident could reach two billion rubles.”

This is Russia’s fifth launch failure in 2011, a surprising number given the usual reliability of Russian rockets.   The other four were GEO-IK2, a Rokot launch vehicle with a Briz upper stage that left the spacecraft stranded in transfer orbit; Express AM-4, a Proton-Briz combination that left the spacecraft in transfer orbit; Progress M-12M, a Soyuz U-Fregat combination that did not attain orbit; and Phobos-Grunt, a Zenit-Fregat combination that left the spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit instead of on a Mars trajectory.

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