Russians Understand Proton-M Failure, But Not Progress M-27M

Russians Understand Proton-M Failure, But Not Progress M-27M

The Russian State Commission investigating the May 16, 2015 Proton-M failure will make its report to the government on Friday, May 29.  Although the results are not official yet, human error in the manufacturing process is suspected.  Meanwhile, experts are still trying to determine what caused the April 28 Soyuz-2.1a failure that doomed the Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft.

What is known publicly so far about the Proton-M failure is that the third stage failed 497 seconds into the flight.  The third stage, the Briz-M upper stage and Mexico’s MexSat-1 communications satellite fell to Earth over Russia’s Baikal region.  All of the pieces apparently burned up during the fall from 161 kilometers altitude.  Russian authorities reported that after searching the area, no debris was located.

TASS reports today that the State Commission established to discover
the cause of the accident will submit its detailed findings to the
Russian government on May 29.  Quoting an unnamed source in the Russian
space industry. “This is, undoubtedly, a human error. The fault occurred
in the manufacturing process.” 

Mexico contracted for the launch to geostationary orbit through International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Proton launch services globally.  While Mexican officials were philosophical about the loss, which was 100 percent insured, the next ILS customer in line, Inmarsat, clearly was not pleased.

Proton-M is also used to launch Russia’s own geostationary communications satellites.  Russia’s Communications Minister, Nikolai Nikiforov, said today that those launches will be delayed 2-3 months, “but this is not critical.”

That was the latest in a string of Russian launch failures since December 2010 and came less than two weeks after the Progress M-27M accident. 
Loaded with three tons of supplies for the International Space Station
(ISS) crew,  something went wrong when the robotic cargo spacecraft separated from its Soyuz-2.1a rocket.  Progress M-27M was placed into an incorrect orbit and reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7.  

The cause for that failure remains unclear a month later, even whether it was the rocket, the spacecraft, or an interaction between the two.  TASS quoted an unnamed Russian industry source today as saying that “more than 50 deviations from the design documentation were found during the manufacture of the rocket and spacecraft” because necessary materials or components were not available, for example.  “This does not mean that non-compliance … may lead to an accident.  This suggests uncoordinated cooperation and the existence of a large number of duplicating components.”

Russian experts are anxious to solve the riddle since ISS operations rely on four or five Progress cargo flights per year in addition to cargo deliveries by American and Japanese spacecraft.  A different version of the Soyuz rocket is used to launch crews, but changes to the schedule for both crew and cargo flights to ISS already have been made.

NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 (59P) because it is the 59th Progress to resupply ISS.  At the moment, Russia plans to launch the next in series, Progress M-28M/60P in July, about a month earlier than originally planned in order to get supplies to the ISS crew, but all dates are tentative until the cause of the failure is understood and corrected.

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