Russia Update: Progress M-27M Unresolved, ISS Reboost Works, Inmarsat5F3 Delayed

Russia Update: Progress M-27M Unresolved, ISS Reboost Works, Inmarsat5F3 Delayed

Russia finally got some good news last night (EDT) when a second try at reboosting the International Space Station (ISS) succeeded.  At the same time, however, the ripple effects of the May 16 Proton launch failure became evident as Inmarsat grimly announced a consequent delay in the launch of its I-5 F3 satellite, the next commercial Proton launch on the schedule.  Meanwhile, Russian experts are still stymied in understanding what went wrong with the Progress M-27M launch on April 28, but have ruled out the Soyuz rocket’s third stage engines as the culprit.

The reboost maneuver carried out by Progress M-26M last night (early this morning Moscow Time), which is docked to the ISS, raised the orbit by 2.8 kilometers (km) to 405 km.  Orbit reboosts are routinely carried out by Progress spacecraft and the failure on May 16 Moscow Time (May 15 EDT) was a surprise.   In that case, Progress was to fire its eight engines for about 15 minutes.   This time, however, only four of the engines were used and they fired for 23 minutes to accomplish the same gain in altitude.  No explanation was given for the earlier failure.  (Note:  NASA reports on its space station blog that the burn was for 32 minutes and 3 seconds, not 23 minutes as TASS stated.  NASA also says that the first attempt was aborted one second into the burn automatically by the Progress spacecraft and Russian controllers identified a problem with one of the engines, which was disabled for the second attempt.)

The ISS is now in position for three of its crew to return to Earth on June 11.  NASA’s Terry Virts, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos’ Oleg Shkaplerov were supposed to return in their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft on May 13, but it was delayed because of the April 28 Progress M-27M failure.

Russia’s official news agency Tass reports today that experts still are mystified by the cause of that launch failure of the Soyuz-2.1a rocket.   Although it was quickly determined that whatever went wrong happened about the time of spacecraft separation from the rocket’s third stage, and they know that the third stage’s fuel tank depressurized, they do not know why.   Russian specialists have now ruled out any problem with the rocket’s third stage engines and are looking at high flight loads or a manufacturing defect in the fuel tank.  The third stage and the spacecraft entered orbit, but Progress M-27M was out of control and reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 8 Moscow Time (May 7 EDT). 

Russia launches four or five Progress cargo ships to the ISS each year.  In addition to delaying the return of the Soyuz TMA-15M crew and launch of their replacements, Russia will move up the launch of the next Progress spacecraft, M-28M, to early July (from August 6).  At least one more Progress launch is expected this year, along with three more U.S. SpaceX Dragon flights (one is attached to ISS now), a Japanese HTV mission, and an Orbital ATK Cygnus launch.  All are robotic cargo spacecraft that take food, fuel and/or other supplies to the six-person ISS crew.  (NASA designates the Progress flights in terms of their support of ISS, so Progress M-26M is Progress 58 because it was the 58th Progress sent to ISS. Progress M-27M is Progress 59 and Progress M-28M will be Progress 60 in NASA parlance.  Dozens of Progress missions supported Soviet/Russian space stations Salyut 6, Salyut 7, and Mir prior to the ISS.)

The latest blow to Russia’s space program was the failure of a Proton-M rocket on May 16 carrying Mexico’s MexSat-1 satellite (also known as Centenario).   The Proton-M’s third stage failed 497 seconds into the flight; it, the Briz-M upper stage, and the spacecraft all fell to Earth over the Baikal region of Russia.   Mexican telecommunications authorities were philosophical about the loss, which was fully insured, but the failure also affects other commercial customers for the Proton rocket, which is marketed by International Launch Services (ILS), a U.S. company.  

The next customer in line is Inmarsat, a global mobile telecommunications provider.   In a statement today explaining that the launch of Inmarsat-5 F3 (I-5 F3) will be delayed indefinitely, Inmarsat President Rupert Pearce sounded highly displeased.  “This is the third time our Global Xpress programme has suffered launch delays because of Proton launch failures,” Pearce noted sternly, adding that the company is “reassured” that its I-5 F4 satellite is under construction by Boeing with a “potential SpaceX launch in the second half of 2016, providing us with significant mission assurance in the case of any protracted delays in Proton’s return to flight or a failed launch of I-5 F3.” 

The April 28 Soyuz-2.1a and May 16 Proton-M failures are the latest in a string of Russian launch vehicle failures since December 2010 that have undermined the once-stellar reputation of Russian launch vehicle reliability.  The Russian State Commission established to investigate the Proton-M failure is headed the Igor Komarov, the new head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency.  He is the fourth man to hold that position since 2009 when NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden took office.  The others were relieved of duties because of prior launch failures and a continuing inability to fix whatever underlying problems exist in the Russian aerospace sector.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was put in charge of the aerospace sector in 2011 after the string of failures began.  At a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev today, Rogozin noted that the May 16 failure was very similar to one exactly a year earlier that doomed Russia’s Express AM-4R satellite.  “In a word, failure of the very same engine system — the rocket’s third stage manufactured at the Voronezh design bureau,” he said. “We are dealing with some design feature or violation of manufacturing rules… Apparently far more scrupulous and thorough work will be needed.”  He added that transitioning to the new Angara family of rockets and ending use of Proton needs to be expedited.  Russia successfully tested its Angara 5 rocket in December.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on May 18, 2015 at 10:00 pm ET with the additional information from NASA’s space station blog about the reboost.

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