Sources: RIA Novosti, Spacepolicyonline.com
Investigation of a December 8 launch incident which saw a Proton booster deliver the Yamal 402 satellite to the wrong orbit has focused on a failed turbopump bearing in the Briz-M upper stage. Although the satellite was eventually boosted to the proper orbit using its own on-board propellant, the mission saving manuever did not come without a cost, most likely shortening the Gazprom satellite’s working life by four years.
The failure marks the third time in a two-year time frame that the hypergolic Briz-M orbital insertion stage has failed, each due to a different issue. An August 2011 launch went awry when a programming error led to the Ekspress AM-4 communications satellite being placed in the wrong orbit. Despite proposals to re-purpose the satellite for communications over the Antarctic where it could have served a useful life, the Russian govenment declined and instead de-orbited the $300 million dollar spacecraft. On August 8, of this year, the Ekspress MD-2 and the Telcom-3 birds were left stranded and attached to the upper stage in a useless orbit when a pressurization line manufactured to incorrect specifications resulted in an early shut down during the third of four planned burns required to reach geostationary orbit. Although there have been been many successful launches of the Proton / Briz since its unhappy introduction in 1999 when the second stage of the Proton rocket exploded during launch, the string of recent failures, as well as problems with other launch systems have warranted special attention from the highest levels of Russia’s government. Following the August 2011 Proton failure, Vladimir Nesterov, Director General of the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which builds both the Proton and the Briz upper stage was replaced. Shortly afterwards, once President, then Prime Minister, now President again Vladimir Putin assigned Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to undertake a sweeping reform of the troubled Russian space sector, which has now seen eight major launch incidents since 2010, including two involving the Soyuz booster.