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

Wayward Progress Destroyed During Fiery Plummet, ISS Crew Launches ‘Under Evaluation’

File photo of a Russian Progress cargo freighter. Credit: Roscosmos
Story updated with further details[/caption]

The spinning, out-of-control Russian Progress 59 cargo freighter met its undesired early demise when it fell from orbit early Friday, May 8, and was destroyed during the unplanned fiery plummet through the Earth’s atmosphere.

As a result of the loss of the unmanned Progress 59 spacecraft, which was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a routine resupply mission, the timelines of upcoming crew rotations and new launches are “under evaluation” – Universe Today learned according to Russian and American space sources.

The doomed Progress freighter “ceased to exist” after it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere 05.04 Moscow time on May 8, 2015 (10:04 p.m. EDT May 7) over the central Pacific Ocean,” according to an official statement from Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency.

The consequences of the failure might cause “postponements of upcoming station crew changes to June” and blastoffs “to July” according to Russian space industry and media sources.

The vessel, also known as Progress M-27M, burned up minutes later and any surviving pieces fell over the Pacific Ocean.

“Debris fell about 900 kilometers west of the Marquesas Islands in the central Pacific Ocean,” a space industry source told the Russian news agency TASS.

“Roscosmos plans to adjust the program of flights to the International Space Station (ISS) due to the recent accident involving the Progress M-27M spacecraft,” according to the TASS rocket and space industry source.

Roscosmos quickly established an investigation board to determine the cause of the Progress failure and any commonalities it might have with manned launches of the Soyuz rocket and capsule, and report back by 13 May.

“The results of investigation of the incident related to “Progress M-27M” will be presented no later than 13 May following the completion of the state commission,” Roscosmos stated.

Russian mission controllers lost control of the Progress 59 spacecraft shortly after its otherwise successful launch to the ISS on April 28 from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket.

Soon after detaching from the rockets third stage, it began to spin out of control at about 1.8 times per second, as seen in a video transmitted from the doomed ship.

After control could not be reestablished, all hope of docking with the ISS was abandoned by Roscosmos.

NASA officials said that the current ISS Expedition 43 six person crew is in no danger. The station has sufficient supplies to last until at least September, even if no other supplies arrive in the meantime.

“The spacecraft was not carrying any supplies critical for the United States Operating Segment (USOS) of the station, and the break up and reenty of the Progress posed no threat to the ISS crew,” NASA said in a statement.

“Both the Russian and USOS segments of the station continue to operate normally and are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight.”

There is a stock of propellants onboard in the Russian segment that can be used for periodically required station reboosts.

According to TASS, “the cause of the accident with the Russian Progress M-27M spacecraft has not been established yet, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told journalists on Friday.”

“Not yet,” he said, answering a question on whether causes of the accident had been established.

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

Because the cause of Progress failure is not yet clear, the schedules for upcoming crew departures and launches to the ISS via Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules are “under evaluation,” according to sources.

There is a significant potential for a delay in the planned May 13 return to Earth of the three person crew international crew consisting of NASA astronaut and current station commander Terry Virts and flight engineers Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, who have been aboard the complex since November 2014.

They comprise the current Expedition 43 crew, along with the recently arrived crew of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka who launched onboard a Soyuz capsule on March 27.

Kelly and Kornienko comprise the first ever “1 Year ISS Crew.”

Virts and his crewmates were due to head back to Earth in their Soyuz capsule on May 13. According to Russian sources, their return trip may be postponed to about June 11 to 13.

“The return from orbit of the expedition which is currently there is suggested to be postponed from May 14 to June,” said a TASS source.

Their three person replacement crew on Expedition 44 were due to blastoff on the next planned manned Soyuz launch on May 26 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This launch may now be delayed as well, to mid or late July.

“More time will be needed to check already manufactured rockets,” said a source. “A manned Soyuz launch may be made in the last ten days of July.”

“The proposal was forwarded by a Roscosmos working group and has not been approved yet,” reports TASS.

An official announcement by Roscosmos of any ISS schedule changes may come next week since the scheduled return of Virts crew is only days away.

Another potential change is that the launch of the next unmanned Progress 60 (M-28M), could potentially be moved up from August to July, hinging on the outcome of the state commission investigation.

To date flights of the Progress vehicle have been highly reliable. The last failure occurred in 2011, shortly after the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in July 2011. The loss of the Progress did cascade into a subsequent crew launch delay later in 2011.

"There's coffee in that nebula"... ehm, I mean... in that #Dragon.  Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency in Star Trek uniform as Dragon arrives at the International Space Station on April 17, 2015. Credit: NASA
“There’s coffee in that nebula”… ehm, I mean… in that #Dragon. Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency in Star Trek uniform as Dragon arrives at the International Space Station on April 17, 2015. Credit: NASA

The 7 ton Progress vehicle was loaded with 2.5 tons of supplies for the ISS and the six person Expedition 43 crew. Items included personal mail for the crew, scientific equipment, food, water, oxygen, gear and replaceable parts for the station’s life support systems.

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS is slated for mid-June. The most recent SpaceX Dragon was launched on the CRS-6 mission on April 14, 2015.

At this time the SpaceX CRS-7 launch remains targeted for liftoff on June 19, 2015.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

2015 Expected to be a Record-Breaking Year for Soyuz-2 Workhorse

2014 was a banner year for the Russian Space Agency, with a record-setting fourteen launches of the next generation unmanned Soyuz-2 rocket. A number of other firsts took place in the course of the year as well, cementing the Soyuz family of rockets as the most flown and most reliable rocket group ever.

But already it seems as though the new year will be an even better year, with a full 20 missions already scheduled to take place, a number of them holdovers from 2014.

The Soyuz 2 launcher currently operates alongside the Soyuz-U (mainly used for launching the unmanned Progress Resupply Spacecraft to the International Space Station) and the Soyuz FG (primarily used for human flights with the Soyuz Spacecraft for missions to ISS), but according to Spaceflight 101, the Soyuz 2 will eventually replace the other vehicles once they are phased out.

In fact, in October of 2014, the Soyuz 2 had its first launch of a Progress cargo spacecraft. Other achievements were that the last two launches of the year were conducted without the aid of DM blocks – a derivative of the Blok D upper stage launch rocket developed during the 1960’s.

As Leonid Shalimov, the CEO of NPO Avtomatiki, the Russian electronic engineering and research organization, said in an interview with the government-owned Russian news agency TASS: “Fourteen launches of Soyuz-2 were carried out in 2014 – a record number in the company history,” he said. “Meanwhile, a total of 19 launches were planned in the outgoing year, five have been postponed till 2015.”

Soyuz-2 rocket preparing to launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in June, 2013. Image Credit: Russian Space News
Soyuz-2 rocket preparing to launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in June, 2013. Image Credit: Russian Space News

As a leader in the development of radio-electronic equipment and rocket space systems, the company is behind the development of a number of automated and integrated control systems that are used in space, at sea, heavy industry, and by oil and natural gas companies.

However, it is arguably the company’s work with Soyuz-2 rockets that has earned the most attention. As a general designation for the newest version of the rocket, the Soyuz-2 is essentially a three-stage rocket carrier and will be used to transport crews and supplies into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Compared to previous generations of the rocket, the Soyuz-2 features updated engines with improved injection systems on the first-stage boosters, as well as the two core engine stages.

Unlike previous incarnations, the Soyuz-2 can also be launched from a fixed launched platform since they are capable of performing rolls while in flight to change their heading. The old analog control systems have also been upgraded with a new digital flight control and telemetry systems that can adapt to changing conditions in mid-flight.

Russia is developing a new generation Advanced Crew Transportation System. Its first flight to the Moon is planned for 2028. Credit: TASS
The Advanced Crew Transportation System, a next-generation reusable craft intended for a Russian lunar mission in 2028. Credit: TASS

In total, some 42 launches of this rocket have taken place over the past decade, the first taking place on November 8th, 2004  from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome – located about 200 km outside of Archangel.

The majority of launches were for the sake of deploying weather, observation and communication satellites.

You can see a full list of Soyuz launches and missions scheduled for 2015 here at the RussianSpaceWeb.

Long-term, the Soyuz-2 is also expected to play a key role in Russia’s plan for a manned lunar mission, which is tentatively scheduled to take place in 2028.

Further Reading: TASS