Tag Archives: Proton

Russia puts four engineers on trial for Proton launch failure

Russia has begun the criminal trial of four engineers for their part in the launch failure of a Proton rocket six years ago, in December 2010.

According to the office of Russia’s federal Prosecutor General, employees at RKK Energia used a wrong formula during the fueling of the company’s Block DM-03 upper stage, which received 1,582 kilograms of extra liquid oxygen above the maximum allowable limit. The prosecutors allege that the department head at RKK Energia Stanislav Balakin, the unit head Aleksandr Martynov and his deputy Sergei Lomtev, while being responsible for the development of operational documentation for Block DM-03, failed to ensure that their subordinate engineer Yuri Bolshigin had completed the on-time adjustment of the computation formula controlling the operation of the fueling system.

This is not the right way to encourage good work in Russian aerospace factories. Sure, these guys screwed up, but you don’t put them on trial, you fire them and hire better people. Making them scapegoats in this way is only going to scare away the best people, who won’t want to join a high-risk industry where, if they make a mistake, they might find themselves in prison.

Russian prosecutors indict four rocket engineers for Proton failure

This won’t solve Russia’s problems: Russian prosecutors have recommended criminal charges against four rocket engineers for failing to properly calculate the right amount of fuel, resulting in a Proton launch failure.

According to the spokesman, Energiya department head Balakin, section head Martynov and his deputy Lomtev responsible for asdeveloping operational documentation failed to ensure that their subordinate, engineer Bolshigin, should timely adjust the calculation formula for resetting the fuel control system. “The document on the need for such adjustment was submitted to the organization’s relevant department but was written off by the engineer as fulfilled. As a result, the calculation formula remained unadjusted,” the spokesman said. “Subsequently, Balakin, Martynov, Lomtev and Bolshigin who knew for sure that the formula for the calculation of the fueling level contained incorrect data that could not be used during a rocket launch agreed operational documentation without pointing to a mistake in calculations,” the spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

Putting these guys in prison is probably the worst thing the Russians can do. It will strike fear throughout their entire aerospace industry, causing all other engineers to take as few risks as possible, or leave the industry entirely. What the Russians should do is simply fire them, and reward those that noted the problem with promotions and increased pay.

In a truly competitive free market such a response will work, because even if the companies don’t reform themselves new companies will step forward to replace them. Russia however does not have a truly competitive free market, and so their only recourse is top-down bullying and threats. “Do it right or we will jail you!”

I should add that the company involved, Energia, has nothing to do with the recent corruption discovered in the construction of the upper stage engines for both Proton and Soyuz. That involved a different Russian company entirely.

Soyuz launches successfully from French Guiana

A Russian Soyuz rocket, built for Arianespace and launched from French Guiana, successfully placed a commercial satellite in geosynchronous orbit on Friday.

The launch has some significance. First, it was the first time a Soyuz rocket placed a payload into geosynchronous orbit. Second, the payload was the first satellite built by a German company in more than 25 years

Finally, and most important, it demonstrated that at least one configuration of the Soyuz rocket is still operational as Russia investigates the corrupt practices at the company that has been building upper stage engines for both its Soyuz and Proton rockets.

Update: Russia has revealed that this on-going investigation will now delay the next Proton rocket launch for 3.5 months. This means that launch will occur sometime in May, and will occur just weeks short of a full year after the last Proton launch on June 9, 2016.

Newly discovered quality control problems ground Russia’s Proton

Confirmed: As a result of its investigation into the problems during a June 9, 2016 launch, Roscosmos has now grounded its Proton rocket for at least the next six months due to the discovery of systemic quality control problems throughout the entire Proton construction process.

On January 23, the Kazakh-based division of the Interfax news agency reported the likelihood of an unusually lengthy delay with Proton missions, which could last several months. A day later, the Kommersant newspaper reported that a recent firing test had revealed technical problems with RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines, which propel the second and third stage of the Proton rocket respectively. The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. The report in the Kommersant echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.

On Jan. 20, 2017, Head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov chaired a meeting of the top managers at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, VMZ, which manufactures rocket engines, including those used on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket and on the second and third stages of Proton. The high-profile meeting followed a decision to return already manufactured RD-0110 engines from Soyuz rockets back to Voronezh, after such an engine had been suspected as the culprit in the loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship on Dec. 1, 2016, as it ascended to orbit onboard a Soyuz-U rocket. [emphasis mine]

The worst part of this story, from an American perspective, is that it might result in a complete grounding of Russia’s entire rocket fleet, since some of these issues involve the Soyuz rocket as well. All manned flights to ISS will stop, which might force us to abandon it for a time.

Read the article. It suggests that Russia’s space industry is now in big big trouble.

Update: The Russians are replacing the entire Soyuz capsule that they had planned to use for the March manned mission to ISS.

“Spaceship No. 734 may be replaced by spacecraft No. 735 over a leak in the descent module [of the 734th space vehicle]. This is not yet known for sure. The spacecraft will be returned for a check,” the source said.

Proton launch delayed again, possibly for months

The first Russian Proton launch since June and presently scheduled for February 2nd could possibly be delayed again, possibly for months this time.

The launch of a Proton carrier rocket with the EchoStar-21 satellite could be postponed yet again, a source at Baikonur cosmodrome told Interfax on Monday. “Preparations continue for the launch of the Proton carrier rocket. However, given a combination of factors, a lengthy pause cannot be ruled out which may lead the launch to be postponed by several months,” the source said. It was reported that the Proton launch with the EchoStar-21 satellite was slated for February 2 but then postponed again by a week for non-technical reasons.

It is very unclear what is causing these repeated delays which has produced possibly the longest gap between Proton launches in quite awhile.

Russia once again postpones next Proton launch

Russia has once again postponed the next launch of the Proton rocket, the first since the June 9 launch where the 2nd stage engine cut off prematurely.

The launch of a Proton-M carrier rocket with an EchoStar 21 satellite from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan has been delayed over the need to hold additional checks of the rocket’s systems and acceleration unit, Russia’s Khrunichev Space Center reported on Friday. The Khrunichev Space Center is the producer of Proton carrier rockets.

I wonder if International Launch Services (ILS), the Russian company that handles Russia’s international commercial launches, is going to lose a customer now, as SpaceX did when it delayed its next launch until 2017.

According to Russianspaceweb, they have figured out what went wrong on June 9, and have been taking corrective actions. The cause of the new delay however, as well as its the fix, appear to be very unclear.

By December 23, the satellite had already been integrated with the launch vehicle, when an unspecified technical program required to postpone the mission until January 2017, at the earliest. Independent sources said that the launch vehicle would have to be disassembled and one of its stages returned to Moscow, but representatives of the International Launch Services, ILS, which manages the mission, said that no such action would be required and the launch had been postponed by a “logistical” issue.

Proton launch postponed again

The Russians have once again delayed the next Proton rocket launch, this time for an additional week to December 28.

This will be the first Proton launch since June, when the rocket’s second stage did not perform as expected. The Russians have released no information about their investigation into that launch, other than repeatedly delay the next Proton launch for almost a half year.

Russia postpones Proton launch again

Originally scheduled for October, International Launch Services (ILS), the Russian company that manages its commercial launches, has once again postponed the next Proton rocket launch.

“The new launch date is December 2016,” the website says. The reasons for the postponement have not yet been announced.

As reported earlier, Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos had rescheduled the launch from October 10 to November 23. It was initially scheduled for late June, then postponed to August 29 and then to October 10.

More significantly, there have been no Proton launches since a June 9 launch were the second stage of the rocket inexplicably shut down prematurely. The Russians have been conducting an investigation, but have released absolutely no information about what they have found

Russia to expand Proton rocket family

The competition heats up: In a shift in policy Russia today announced that rather than abandon their Proton rocket and replace it with Angara, they plan to expand the Proton rocket family by introducing two new smaller versions.

Because these new versions are merely revisions, they hope to have them available by 2019 at the earliest.

Angara’s status

The competition heats up: Work on the factories that will build and assembly Russia’s new Angara rocket appear to be nearing completion.

The article is an excellent overview of the entire Angara program. It also includes a number of interesting nuggets of information that might explain events of the past as well as Russia’s future success or failure of Angara.

For example, the repeated problems with Proton’s Briz-M upper station in 2012 could have been caused by the shift of much of its production from the Khrunichev factories near Moscow to a newly absorbed company located in Siberia. The move was made to take advantage of lower costs in Siberia while letting the company sell off land in Moscow.

Beginning in 2009, PO Polyot was to take responsibility for the production of the Briz-KM upper stage for the Rockot booster, as well as Rockot’s adapter rings and the payload fairings. Also, the manufacturing of all key elements for the Angara-1.2 version of the rocket would end up in Omsk as well. Additionally, the Ust-Katav Wagon-building Plant, UKVZ, would produce components for Angara and its KVTK upper stage, along with sections of the Proton rocket and the Briz-M upper stage.

As for Angara, the article suggests that Russia is struggling to make it as inexpensive to launch as Proton:
» Read more

Russia looks to reduce Proton launch costs

The competition heats up: Russian officials are considering developing a new variant of the Proton rocket that would cost less to launch and thus make the rocket more desirable in the increasingly competitive launch market.

They have not made a decision yet. As the article notes,

[G]iven the extended length of time required for even less radical upgrades of Proton and the official Russian strategy to phase out the vehicle in favor of Angara-5, it is unclear whether it would be possible to justify the Proton-Light development effort. A number of previous proposals to change the shape and size of the Proton-M rocket were deemed too expensive more than a decade earlier in the rocket’s operational career.

Another Russian rocket, the Proton this time, has underperformed

For reasons that are not yet clear, either the first or the second stage of Russia’s Proton, launched today, underperformed, requiring the Breeze-M upper stage to compensate in order to get the commercial satellite into the proper orbit.

This is the same thing that happened on the last Soyuz rocket launch, with no explanation as yet either.

Proton launch delayed 24 hours

Due to an electrical ground system issue, Russia has delayed by one day the launch of an upgraded Proton rocket, from today to tomorrow.

I suspect that the recent tough response by Putin’s government to the one day delay of the first launch at Vostochny, including the firing of one manager, has helped focus the minds in Kazakhstan.

On a side note, below the fold is a nice short video showing this Proton rocket’s journey to the launchpad earlier this week. Hat tip to t-dub for sending me the link. It provides some very nice views of the rocket, which is definitely a marvel of big engineering.
» Read more

Russian government rescues Proton manufacturer

The Russian government has moved to cover more than $300 million in debts incurred by the Khrunichev Space Center, the company that builds the Proton rocket.

The company’s problems center around its loss of market share, partly because of repeated launch failures of the Proton rocket in the last five years, and partly because of SpaceX’s lower launch prices.

Russia denies that Proton upper stage failed after launching ExoMars

At a press conference today the head of Roscosmos today countered claims that some failure had occurred after ExoMars was placed on its course to Mars.

Briefing reporters in Moscow, Igor A. Komarov reiterated statements made by Proton prime contractor Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow, saying the Breeze-M upper stage separated ExoMars without incident and then proceeded with the standard passivation and collision-avoidance maneuvers.

Komarov said he had seen photos taken from a Brazilian ground telescope that appeared to show small objects in the vicinity of the Breeze-M stage and ExoMars. “I do have these pictures, provided by the Brazilian observatory, showing the ExoMars spacecraft surrounded by some dimly illuminated objects reportedly related to the upper stage,” Komarov said.

“Telemetry and other objectively verifiable data available to us, covering the entire time from the separation and the contamination and collision avoidance maneuvers to the passivation of the upper stage, show that all these steps have been performed successfully, without any anomalies,” Komarov said. “There is absolutely no indication of an upper-stage explosion or breakup.”

The uncertainty will only be settled in the next few weeks, when engineers activate all of ExoMars instruments. Should they all be working as expected, then it will likely be that nothing had happened to the Briz-M upper stage, as Roscosmos claims. If not, then Russia has a problem, since it depends on that stage for future Proton commercial launches and will not know what went wrong here.

Near disaster for ExoMars

The Russian jinx for going to Mars might not be over yet: New data suggests that the Briz-M upper stage to the Proton rocket exploded shortly after it has propelled ExoMars on its way to Mars and then separated from it.

There appears to be a cloud of debris near the probe, thought to have been caused when the Briz-M stage was to fire its rockets one last time to take it away from ExoMars as well as prevent it from following it to Mars. Instead, it is thought (though not confirmed) that the stage blew up at that moment.

Though so far ExoMars appears to be functioning properly, but they have not yet activated all of its most sensitive instruments. Only when they turn them on in April will we find out if they were damaged in any way by the Briz-M failure.

ExoMars blasts off

The European-Russian Mars orbiter/lander ExoMars was successfully launched on a Proton rocket this morning from Baikonur.

It will still take most of today for the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage to complete several additional engine burns to send the spacecraft on its path to Mars, but the most difficult part of the launch has now passed.

The article does a nice job of summing up Russia’s most recent track record in trying to send spacecraft to Mars, thus illustrating the significance of today’s success:

For Russian scientists, the launch marks the resumption of a cooperative effort with Europe to explore the Solar System, after the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011.The launch of the ExoMars-2016 spacecraft will be Proton’s first “interplanetary” assignment in almost two decades. During its previous attempt in November 1996, Proton’s upper stage failed, sending the precious Mars-96 spacecraft to a fiery desmise in the Earth’s atmosphere and effectively stalling Russia’s planetary exploration program for a generation.

Further in the past, during the Soviet era, the Russians tried numerous times to either orbit or land on Mars. Every mission failed. If this mission successfully reaches Mars and lands it will mark the first time the Russians played a major role in a mission to Mars that actually reached its goal and worked.

Another Falcon Heavy customer switches to different rocket

The competition heats up: Afraid of more delays in SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, Inmarsat has booked a Russian Proton rocket for a 2017 commercial satellite launch.

London-based Inmarsat is the second Falcon Heavy commercial customer to have sought a Plan B given the continued uncertainties in the launch schedule of Falcon Heavy, whose inaugural flight has been repeatedly delayed. Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat Inc. in February moved its ViaSat-2 consumer broadband satellite from the Falcon Heavy to Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket for an April 2017 launch, securing what may be launch-service provider Arianespace’s last 2017 slot for a heavy satellite.

ExoMars ready for launch

The European ExoMars Mars orbiter and lander mission, set for launch on March 14, is assembled on its Proton rocket and is ready for launch.

This European project was originally going to be in partnership with NASA, but the Obama administration pulled out of the deal. The Russians then offered to come in and provide a rocket for the mission.

Russian Proton rocket successfully launches commercial satellite

The competition heats up: The Russians successfully put a European commercial communications satellite into orbit today their Proton rocket.

It was the sixth successful Proton launch since their May failure. The key quote from the article however was this:

ILS owner Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow has said it would give ILS leeway to reduce prices to work its way back into the regular commercial-launch rotation alongside SpaceX and Europe’s Arianespace. The decline of the Russian ruble against the U.S. dollar has made that task easier as most commercial launch contracts are priced in dollars.

In other words they are going to cut prices to compete, and the falling ruble has given them more leeway to do it.

Proton successfully launches satellite

The competition heats up: A Russian Proton rocket successfully placed a commercial communications satellite in orbit today, the fifth successful launch in a row since a May launch failure and the second launch in only 10 days.

For the Russians the Proton successes during the second half of 2015 are encouraging. Whether they have solved their chronic quality control problems, however, remains unknown. I remain doubtful, especially because they have eliminated competition within their industry and folded everything into a single government entity that runs it all.

Proton launch success

The competition heats up: Russia’s Proton rocket successfully launched a military communications satellite on Sunday.

The link provides a lot of interesting information about the satellite as well as some recent upgrades the Russians have installed in Proton, but for context the last two paragraphs are probably the most important:

Sunday’s launch was the seventy ninth orbital launch attempt of 2015 and the seventh Proton launch of the year. Five of the six previous launches were successful, with May’s launch of Mexsat-1 failing to achieve orbit. Proton has had eleven failures in the last ten years, with 2009 the only year since 2005 in which it has not suffered at least one anomaly.

The next Proton launch is scheduled for 23 December, with another Proton-M/Briz-M carrying the Ekspress-AMU1 communications satellite. Details of any future Garpun launches are not available.

The launch reliability for Proton has seriously fallen since 2005, and to compete in the changing launch market they will need to fix this.

Eutelsat signs a multi-launch Proton rocket deal

The competition heats up: Satellite maker Eutelsat has signed a seven year multi-launch deal with International Launch Services (ILS) using the Proton rocket.

The ILS press release does not state how many launches this contract covers, which makes me suspect that ILS was forced due to competition with SpaceX to give Eutelsat a great deal of flexibility about which launcher it uses with each satellite down the road. The ILS release even admits this. ““With their selection of ILS Proton for this Multi-Launch Agreement Eutelsat has made a clear statement that flexibility and schedule assurance are key discriminators.”

This is still a good thing for the Russians, as it insures them a share in the launch market for almost the next decade.

ILS to slash prices for Proton

The competition heats up: The new head of ILS, the company that handles the commercial launches of Russia’s Proton, has announced that they are going to lower their prices.

According to the article the new price will be about $65 million, which is comparable to what I think SpaceX is charging for its Falcon 9.

Second successful Proton launch in a row

The competition heats up: A Proton rocket today successfully launched a Russian communications satellite into orbit.

This was the second successful Proton launch since the May 16 launch failure. The next Proton launch is scheduled for October 9, part of a crowded scheduled for the rest of the year as the Russians attempt to launch a backlog of customer payloads.

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