Two More Failures in One Day Bedevil Russian Space Program-UPDATED

Two More Failures in One Day Bedevil Russian Space Program-UPDATED

Russia’s space program suffered two more failures in the past day.  First, the engines of a Progress cargo spacecraft attached to the International Space Station (ISS) did not fire when commanded to raise the orbit of the ISS.  Then, the launch of a Proton rocket carrying a Mexican communications satellite failed.  These are on top of the failure of a different Progress cargo ship that made an uncontrolled reentry over the Pacific Ocean last week.

Russia launches four or five Progress cargo spacecraft to the ISS each year.  Progress M-26M is currently attached to the ISS.  These spacecraft deliver food, fuel and other supplies and also are used to periodically raise the space station’s orbit by firing their engines.  It is a routine reboost operation that dozens of Progress spacecraft have executed for space stations beginning with the Soviet Union’s Salyut 6 in the late 1970s and progressing through the Salyut 7, Mir and now ISS programs.  

This time, however, the Progress M-26M engines did not fire upon command.  The engines were supposed to ignite at 4:14 am Moscow Time May 16 (9:14 pm May 15 EDT) and fire for about 15 minutes to raise the ISS orbit by 2.8 kilometers to an altitude of 401.8 kilometers.  The most recent rebsoost was on May 6 and another is planned for June 7.   Russia’s official news agency TASS said later in the day that experts at Russia’s Mission Control Center had identified the problem and another attempt will be made on May 18.  It quoted an unnamed source as saying “I would rather not name the reason” for the failure.

This incident follows the failure of Progress M-27M to reach the ISS.  Russia is still investigating that failure as well.  The problem occurred when Progress M-27M separated from the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket during launch on April 28, but Russian specialists still do not know why.  The spacecraft made an uncontrolled reentry on May 7 EDT.  Changes were made to the schedule for crew and cargo launches to the ISS while they try to determine the cause.

Now there is a third anomaly to solve.  A Russian Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 05:47 GMT (1:47 am EDT) this morning to send Mexico’s MexSat-1 (or Centenario) to geostationary orbit.  The Proton’s third stage failed at 497 seconds according to Roscosmos, however.  The third stage, the Briz-M upper stage, and the MexSat-1 satellite all fell to Earth over the Baikal region of Russia.  Most of the debris is presumed to have burned up during the descent from 161 kilometers altitude.  Russian authorities are searching the area, but no fragments have been located.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev immediately directed that a State Commission be established to investigate the accident “and submit proposals on personal and financial responsibility.”

TASS said preliminary indications are that the “steering engines of the third stage” failed.   A Proton failure exactly one year ago doomed Russia’s Ekspress-AM4R communications satellite because of a bad bearing in the turbo pump of a third stage engine.

Proton launches are marketed worldwide by International Launch Services (ILS) based in Reston, VA. Roscosmos fairly quickly posted on its website that “an emergency situation occurred.”  Several hours later ILS acknowledged the
failure and said that it will create its own Failure Review Oversight
Board that will work in parallel with Russia’s State Commission.  Roscosmos said the “satellite and its launch” are insured by the customer, while third party liability is insured by the Russian side.

Russia’s launch vehicles once were considered among the most reliable in the world, but repeated failures since December 2010 have tarnished their reputation. The Russian government has fired people at Roscosmos and in industry and repeatedly reorganized the aerospace sector, most recently combining the government and industry sectors under a single individual, but the failures continue.

Editor’s Note:  This story, originally posted at 9:41 am ET, May 16, 2015, was updated throughout at 1:15 pm with additional information. 

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