ExoMars Spacecraft Launches to Red Planet Searching for Signs of Life

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The joint European/Russian ExoMars spacecraft successfully launched early this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Proton-M rocket at 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday, March 14, with the goal of searching for signs of life on the Red Planet.

After settling into orbit around Mars, it’s instruments will scan for minute signatures of methane gas that could possibly be an indication of life or of nonbiologic geologic processes ongoing today.

The spacecraft is currently circling in a temporary and preliminary parking orbit around Earth following liftoff of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Russian-built rocket under overcast skies – awaiting a critical final engine burn placing the probe on an interplanetary trajectory to Mars.

The 9,550-pound (4,332-kilogram) ExoMars 2016 spacecraft continued soaring to orbit after nominal firings of the Proton’s second and third stages and jettisoning of the payload fairing halves protecting the vehicle during ascent through Earth’s atmosphere.

A total of four more burns from the Breeze-M upper stage are required to boost ExoMars higher and propel it outwards on its seven-month-long journey to the Red Planet.

So the excitement and nail biting is not over yet and continues to this moment. The final successful outcome of today’s mission cannot be declared until more than 10 hours after liftoff – after the last firing of the Breeze-M upper stage sets the probe on course for Mars and escaping the tug of Earth’s gravity.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The first three Breeze-M fourth stage burns have now been completed as of about 9:40 am EST, according to ESA mission control on Darmstadt, Germany.

The fourth and final ignition of the Breeze-M upper stage and spacecraft separation is slated for after 3 p.m. EDT today, March 14, 2016.

The first acquisition of signal from the spacecraft is expected later at about 5:21:29 p.m. EST (21:29 GMT).

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a joined pair of European-built spacecraft consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The cooperative mission includes significant participation from the Russian space agency Roscosmos who provided the Proton-M launcher, part of the science instrument package, the surface platform and ground station support.

The launch was carried live courtesy of a European Space Agency (ESA) webcast:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/ExoMars/Watch_ExoMars_launch

ESA is continuing live streaming of the launch events throughout the day as burns continue and events unfold lead up to the critical final burn of the Breeze-M upper stage

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases, present at levels of one percent or far less.

On Earth methane can be produced by biology, volcanoes, natural gas and hydrothermal activity. TGO will investigate what makes it on Mars and follow up on measurements from NASA’s Curiosity rover and other space based assets and telescopes.

Martian methane has a lifetime of about 400 years, until it is destroyed by solar UV & mixed by atmosphere, says Jorge Vago, ESA ExoMars 2016 principal scientist.

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for perhaps four and up to eight days until the battery is depleted.

The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface.

It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters (seven feet) where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2018 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:  ESA/ATG medialab
ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:
ESA/ATG medialab

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Countdown Begins for Blastoff of ExoMars 2016 Spacecraft on March 14 – Watch Live

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft rolled out to launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft rolled out to launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

The countdown has begun for blastoff of the ambitious European/Russian ExoMars 2016 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 14. Its goal is to search for minute signatures of methane gas that could possibly be an indication of life or of nonbiologic geologic processes ongoing today.

Final launch preparations are now in progress. Liftoff of the powerful Russian Proton booster from Baikonur carrying the ExoMars spacecraft is slated for 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday morning, March 14.

You can watch the launch live courtesy of a European Space Agency (ESA) webcast:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/ExoMars/Watch_ExoMars_launch

The prelaunch play by play begins with live streaming at 4:30 a.m. EDT (08:30 GMT).

The first acquisition of signal from the spacecrft is expected at 21:29 GMT

As launch and post launch events unfold leading to spacecraft separation, ESA plans additional live streaming events at 7:00 a.m. EDT (11:00 GMT) and 5:10 p.m. (21:10 GMT)

Spacecraft separation from the Breeze upper stage is expected at about 10 hours, 41 minutes.

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstration lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Russian is providing the Proton booster and part of the science instrument package.

“The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” says ESA.

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

ExoMars is Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet following the two year postponement of NASA’s InSight lander from 2016 to 2018 to allow time to fix a defective French-built seismometer.

ESA reported late today , March 13, that at T-minus 12 hours the Trace Gas Orbiter has been successfully switch on, a telemetry link was established and the spacecrft battery charging has been completed.

The Proton rocket with the encapsulated spacecraft bolted atop were rolled out to the Baikonur launch pad on Friday, March 11 and the launcher was raised into the vertical position.

ESA mission controller then completed a full launch dress rehearsal on Saturday, March 12.

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing  at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ExoMars 2016 Spacecraft Encapsulated for Red Planet Launch in One Week

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing  at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Final launch preparations are now in full swing for the ambitious European/Russian ExoMars 2016 spacecraft which has been encapsulated inside its payload launcher fairing and is slated to blast off for the Red Planet one week from now on March 14, 2016 from Kazakhstan.

On March 2, technicians working at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan completed the complex multiday mating and enclosure operations of the composite ExoMars 2016 spacecraft to the launch vehicle adapter and the Breeze upper stage inside the nose cone.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

“The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” says ESA.

2016’s lone mission to the Red Planet will launch atop a Russian Proton rocket.

The individual orbiter and lander spacecraft were recently mated at Baikonur on February 12.

To prepare for the encapsulation, engineers first tilted the spacecraft horizontally. Then they rolled the first fairing half underneath the spacecraft and Breeze on a track inside the Baikonur cleanroom.

Then they used an overhead crane to carefully lower the second fairing half and maneuver it into place from above to fully encapsulate the precious payload.

Tilting the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage into the horizontal position in preparation of encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Tilting the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage into the horizontal position in preparation of encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

The 13.5 foot (4.1-meter) diameter payload fairing holding the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage will next be mated to the Proton rocket and rolled out to the Baikonur launch pad.

The launch window extends until March 25.

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for up to eight days.

The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface.

It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ExoMars 2016 Orbiter and Lander Mated for March Launch

ExoMars Schiaparelli lander being mated with the Trace Gas Orbiter on 12 February 2016. Credit: ESA - B. Bethge
ExoMars Schiaparelli lander being mated with the Trace Gas Orbiter on 12 February 2016. Credit: ESA – B. Bethge

Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet this year has now been assembled into launch configuration and all preparations are currently on target to support blastoff from Baikonur at the opening of the launch window on March 14, 2016.

The ambitious ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). Continue reading “ExoMars 2016 Orbiter and Lander Mated for March Launch”

Mir: Russia’s Space Station

The Mir Space Station was Russia’s greatest space station, and the first modular space station to be assembled in orbit. Commissioned in 1986, the name can be translated from Russian as “peace”, “world”, and even “village” – alluding to the spirit of international cooperation that led to its creation. Owned and operated by the Soviet Union, it became the property of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) after 1991.

The space station was intended to advocate world peace and hosted international scientists and NASA astronauts. In this respect, Mir was very much the curtain-raiser for the International Space Station, which succeeded it as the largest satellite in Earth’s orbit after 2001.

Origin:

During the 1960s and 70s, when the United States was largely focused on Apollo and the Space Shuttle program, Russia began to focus on developing expertise in long-duration spaceflight, and felt that a larger space station would allow for more research in that area. Authorized in February 1976 by a government decree, the station was originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations.

The original plan called for a core module that would be equipped with a total of four docking ports, but eventual grew to include several ports for crewed Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo spaceships. By August 1978, the plan had grown to the final configuration of one aft port and five ports in a spherical compartment at the forward end of the station.

The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA's STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA
The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA’s STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA

Two would be located at either end of the station (as with the Salyut stations) with an additional two on either side of a docking sphere at the front of the station to enable further modules to expand the station’s capabilities.  These docking ports would each accommodate 20-tonne space station modules based on the TKS spacecraft – a previous generation of space craft used to bring cosmonauts and supplies to the Salyut space stations.

Work began on the station in 1979, and drawings were released in 1982 and 83. By early 1984, work had ground to a halt as virtually all of Russia’s space resources were being put into the Buran program – a Soviet and later Russian reusable spacecraft project. Funding resumed in early 1984 when the Central Committee became determined to orbit Mir by early 1986, just in time for the 27th Communist Party Congress.

Deployment:

On February 19th, 1986, the assembly process began with the launching of Mir’s core module on a Proton-K rocket into orbit. Between 1987 and 1996, four of the six modules were launched and added to the station – Kvant-2 in 1989, Kristall in 1990, Spektr in 1995 and Priroda in 1996. In these cases, the modules were sent into orbit aboard a Proton-K, chased the station automatically, and then used their robot Lyappa arms to mate with the core.

Soviet/Russian space station Mir, after completion in 1996. The date shown for each module is its year of launch. Docked to the station are a Soyuz TM manned spacecraft and an unmanned Progress resupply ferry. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica
Soviet/Russian space station Mir, after completion in 1996. The date shown for each module is its year of launch. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

Kvant-1, having no engines of its own, was delivered by a TKS spacecraft in 1987, while the docking module was brought to the station aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-74) in 1995. Various other external components, including three truss structures, several experiments and other unpressurized elements, were also mounted to the exterior of the station over the course of its history.

The station’s assembly marked the beginning of the third generation of space station design, being the first to consist of more than one primary spacecraft. First generation stations such as Salyut 1 and Skylab had monolithic designs, consisting of one module with no resupply capability, while second generation stations (Salyut 6 and Salyut 7) comprised a monolithic station with two ports to allow resupply cargo spacecraft (like Progress).

The capability of Mir to be expanded with add-on modules meant that each could be designed with a specific purpose in mind, thus eliminating the need to install all the station’s equipment in one module. After construction was finished, Mir had a collection of facilities. At 13.1 meters (43 feet) long, the “core” module of the station was the main area where the cosmonauts and astronauts did their work. It also housed the main computer and vital space station parts, such as communications.

In addition to solar arrays and a docking port, the station had several facilities for orbital science. These included, but were not limited to, the two Kvant modules (where astronomy and other scientific research was conducted), the Kristall module (which had a facility for microgravity manufacturing) and Spektr (focused on Earth work).

A view of the Russian space station Mir on 3 July 1993 as seen from Soyuz TM-17. Credit: spacefacts.de
A view of the Russian space station Mir on 3 July 1993 as seen from Soyuz TM-17. Credit: spacefacts.de

Missions:

During its 15-year spaceflight, Mir was visited by a total of 28 long-duration, or “principal”, crews. Expeditions varied in length, but generally lasted around six months. Principal expedition crews consisted of two to three crew members, who often launched as part of one expedition but returned with another.

As part of the Soviet Union’s manned spaceflight program effort to maintain a long-term research outpost in space, operated by the new Russian Federal Space Agency after 1991, the vast majority of the station’s crew were Russian. However, through international collaborations, the station was made accessible to astronauts from North America, several European nations and Japan.

Collaborative programs included the Intercosmos, Euromir and Shuttle-Mir programs. Intercosmos, which ran from 1978-1988, involved astronauts from other Warsaw Pact Nations, other socialist nations – like Afghanistan, Cuba, Mongolia, and Vietnam – and pro-Soviet non-aligned nations such as India, Syria, and even France.

Euromir, which began in the 1990s, was a collaborative effort between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring European astronauts to the space station. With help provided by the NASA Space Shuttle program, the goal was to recruit and train European astronauts for the then-planned International Space Station.

Meanwhile, the Shuttle–Mir Program was a collaborative space program between Russia and the United States, and involved American Space Shuttles visiting the space station, Russian cosmonauts flying on the shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to engage in long-duration expeditions aboard Mir.

A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21. Credit: NASA
A view of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir during STS-71 as seen by the crew of Mir EO-19 in Soyuz TM-21. Credit: NASA

By the time of the station’s deorbit, it had been visited by 104 different people from twelve different nations, making it the most visited spacecraft in history (a record later surpassed by the International Space Station).

Decommissioning:

When it was launched in 1986, Mir was only supposed to have a life span of about five years, but it proved to have a greater longevity than anyone expected. Unfortunately, a series of technical and structural problems eventually caught up with the station; and in November 2000, the Russian government announced that it would decommission the space station.

This began on Jan. 24th, 2001, when a Russian Progress cargo ship rendezvoused with the station carrying twice its normal amount of fuel. The extra fuel was intended to fire the Progress’ thrusters once it had docked with Mir and push the station into a controlled descent through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Russian government purchased insurance just in case the space station hit any populated area when it crashed to Earth. Luckily, the station ended up crashing into the South Pacific Ocean, landing about 2,897 kilometers from New Zealand. In 2001, former RKA General Director Yuri Koptev estimated that the cost of the Mir program to be $4.2 billion (including development, assembly and orbital operation).

Legacy:

The Mir Space Station endured for 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It hosted scores of crew members and international visitors, raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space, and served as a symbol of Russia’s past glories and it’s potential as a future leader in space exploration.

Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA
Jerry Linenger dons a mask during his mission on Mir in 1997. Credit: NASA

In addition, the station was a source of controversy over the years, due to the many accidents and hazards it endured. The most famous of these took place on February 24, 1997 during mission STS-81. On this occasion, which saw the Space Shuttle Atlantis delivering crew, supplies, and conducting a series of tests, the worst fire aboard an orbiting spacecraft broke out.

This caused failures in various on-board systems, a near collision with a Progress resupply cargo ship during a long-distance manual docking system test, and a total loss of station electrical power. The power failure also caused a loss of attitude control, which led to an uncontrolled “tumble” through space. Luckily, the crew managed to suppress the fire and regain control before long.

Another major incident took place on June 25th, when a Progress resupply ship collided with solar arrays on the Spektr module, creating a hole which caused the station to lose pressure. This was the first orbital depressurization in the history of spaceflight to take place. Luckily, no astronauts were lost while serving aboard the station.

Mir is also famous for hosting long-duration missions during its early years in space. Topping the list was Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent nearly 438 days aboard Mir and landed on March 22, 1995. The station itself orbited the Earth more than 86,000 times during its lifespan, and was also the largest orbiting object in the Solar System.

But most importantly of all, Mir served as the stage for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism. Without it, there would be no ISS today, and numerous joint-research efforts between NASA, the ESA, Russia, and other federal space agencies, would not have been possible.

We have written many interesting articles about space stations here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the International Space Station?, Fire! How the Mir Incident Changed Space Station History, The Mir Space Station: An Unlikely Place for a Beautiful Art Exhibit, and Mir’s Fiery Re-entry, March 23, 2001.

For more information, check out the Mir Space Station and Shuttle-Mir.

And Astronomy Cast has a wonderful episode on Mir, titled Episode 297: Space Stations, Part 2: Mir

Source:

2nd Launch Disaster in 3 Weeks Strikes Russia, Destroying Proton Rocket and Mexican Comsat

Russian Proton rocket blasts off at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan but ended in disaster about eight minutes later with destruction of the rocket and Mexican comsat satellite payload heading to orbit. Credit: Roscosmos
Story updated with additional details [/caption]

For the second time in less than three weeks, a major disaster struck the Russian space program when the launch of a Proton-M rocket ended in catastrophic failure about eight minutes after today’s (May 16) liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, resulting in the complete destruction of the Mexican communications satellite payload.

The Proton-M rocket initially lifted off successfully at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT, 547 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but soon experienced an “emergency situation at 497 seconds into the flight,” according to a brief official statement released by Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency today, after the mishap.

The launch catastrophe was caused by a failure in the rockets Breeze-M third stage, says Roscosmos. It took place during a live broadcast from the agency’s website. A video shows the rocket disappearing into cloudy skies shortly after liftoff.

The failure comes just one week after the spinning, out-of-control Russian Progress 59 cargo freighter bound for the ISS met its undesired early demise when it fell uncontrolled from orbit last Friday, May 8, following its botched April 28 launch on a Russian Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket, also from Baikonur – as reported by Universe Today – here, here, and here.

The Proton-M carrier rocket was lofting the Mexsat 1 communications satellite, also known as Centenario, under a contract with the Mexican government.

“The failure happened on the 497th second of the flight, at an altitude of 161 kilometers [100 miles]. The third stage, the booster vehicle and the spacecraft almost completely burned up in the atmosphere. As of now there are no reports of debris reaching the ground,” the agency said in a statement.

Prelaunch view of Russian Proton rocket poised at launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.   Credit: Roscosmos
Prelaunch view of Russian Proton rocket poised at launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Roscosmos

The Breeze-M third stage was to loft Mexsat 1 to its destination in geostationary orbit over 22,000 miles above Earth at 113 degrees west longitude.

The 58.2 m (191 ft) tall Proton rocket is built and operated by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center and marketed by International Launch Services (ILS).

After reaching an altitude of about 161 km (100 mi) the rocket and Mexsat 1 payload fell back to Earth and burned up over the Chita region of Russia, which is located south west of the Siberian Baikal region, said the Russian News agency TASS.

“The rocket and its payload, a Mexican communication satellite, burned up in the atmosphere,” according to a report by Sputnik International, a Russian News agency.

At this time, local residents have not reported or claimed anything regarding possible debris and there is no information about casualties or destruction, TASS noted.

Mi8 helicopters from Russia’s Emergencies Ministry have been dispatched to the area to look for any debris.

The 5.4 ton Mexsat 1 communication satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems International for the Mexican government’s Ministry of Communications and Transportation, the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes (SCT).

Russian Proton rocket in flight after blast off at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It ended in disaster about eight minutes later with destruction of the rocket and Mexican satellite payload heading to orbit.  Credit: Roscosmos
Russian Proton rocket in flight after blast off at 11:47 a.m. local time (1:47 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It ended in disaster about eight minutes later with destruction of the rocket and Mexican satellite payload heading to orbit. Credit: Roscosmos

The Breeze-M failure occurred about 1 minute prior to separation of the third stage from Mexsat 1.

“The emergency situation happened at 08:56 Moscow time, one minute to the scheduled separation of the Breeze-M booster and the Mexican MexSat-1 space apparatus,” TASS reported.

A malfunction with the third stage steering engine may be the cause of the doomed flight.

“A preliminary reason of the accident with Proton is a failure of the steering engines of the third stage,” sources told TASS.

“The analysis of the telemetry allows for supposing that there was a failure in one of the third stage’s steering engines. This is now considered as one of the main reasons.”

Exactly one year ago, another Proton rocket crashed at a similar point when the third stage engines failed during the Proton launch of Russia’s advanced Express-AM4R satellite.

“Khrunichev and International Launch Services (ILS) regret to announce an anomaly during today’s Proton mission,” ILS said in a statement issued after the launch failure.

ILS said an accident investigation board has been appointed to determine the cause of the failure and recommend corrective actions.

“A Russian State Commission has begun the process of determining the reasons for the anomaly. ILS will release details when data becomes available,” said ILS.

They hope to return the workhorse Proton to flight as soon as possible.

“ILS remains committed to providing reliable, timely launch services for all its customers. To this end, ILS will work diligently with its partner Khrunichev to return Proton to flight as soon as possible.”

This was the eleventh failure of the Proton-M rocket or Breeze-M upper stage in 116 launches since the inaugural liftoff in April 2001.

Mexsat 1 had a planned lifetime of 15 years. It was to provide mobile satellite services to support national security, civil and humanitarian efforts and will provide disaster relief, emergency services, telemedicine, rural education, and government agency operations.

Media reports indicate it was insured for about $390 million.

File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos
File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer