Proton Problems Persist

Russia may soon need its own trampoline.

Overnight, a Russian Proton-M booster lifted off from Baikonur carrying the Express AM4R communications satellite built by EADS Astrium.  Like all too many Proton payloads in recent years, it did not reach the correct orbit, or in this case, any orbit at all. Instead it suffered a complete failure 540 seconds into the flight, which would have taken place between 2nd and 3rd stage separation.

According to the initial report from ITAR-TASS:

“Some small fragments of the rocket could fall onto Earth. An impact area is being ascertained,” the space official said. According to the data given by him, the engine of the third stage of the carrier rocket failed at an altitude of 161 km because of deviation of the Proton-M from the flight path. “There was an angle-and-bank error,”

Updated information suggests the problem arose with the third stage steering engine.

Oddly enough, this satellite was a replacement for a previous Express satellite dropped in a useless orbit by another Proton in August of 2012.  This is the sixth overall failure of a Proton launch since 2010, including a dramatic flaming wreck seconds after liftoff at Baikonur on July 1, 3013.  Strangely, none of the Proton failures have come on separately marketed commercial ILS missions, but sooner or later, the odds may catch up with the Virgina based company. As it is, this latest failure will result in a temporary stand down in all Proton launches, causing a headache for ILS, which hoped to conduct five more flights this year.

With the European Ariane V overbooked for the year, and Arianespace publicly expressing the hope that some of its customers are slow in arriving at the launch site, market conditions seem to be aligning favorably for a long awaited debut of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which now appears to be set for early 2015.  SpaceX originally intended to launch the inaugural mission from Vandenberg, Ca., but recently stated that the first launch will instead be from Cape Canaveral, or more specifically, from NASA launch complex 39A.

Although the company did not announce a reason for the change of venue, it would at least raise the possibility that a commercial customer is waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, for an increasingly bellicose Russia, this latest failure, the 12th overall since 2010, is yet another sign that despite the rhetoric, which has included the suggestion that NASA may need a trampoline to reach ISS, its space infrastructure is still in a state of decay.

It may also raise further questions as to why the U.S. Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program is still adamant about a pursuing a block buy of ULA boosters which furthers American dependence on Russian hardware in the form of the Atlas V. Although there have not been any serious problems with the Russian supplied RD-180 engine, the alarming spate of launch failures has taken place on a variety of Russian built boosters, indicating the issues afflicting that nation’s aerospace base are widespread and could still crop up in unexpected places.

NASA perhaps, should be even more concerned, as two of the 12 incidents since 2010 took place aboard Soyuz boosters. Fortunately, neither failure involved the crew carrying version of venerable rocket which currently launches all astronauts to the International Space Station, but that can hardly be a great source of comfort considering the overall circumstances.

Posted in: Russian Space

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