Tag Archives: Proton

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:
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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.
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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.

New launch contracts for SpaceX and ILS

The competition heats up: Launch competitors SpaceX and ILS announced new contracts today for launching commercial satellites into orbit.

SpaceX announced two new contracts, one from the Spanish communications company Hispasat, who signed them up to use a Falcon 9, and a second from the Saudia Arabian communications company Arabsat for a Falcon Heavy launch.

ILS meanwhile got its own contract from Hispasat to use a Proton to put another Hispasat communcations satellite into orbit.

The two Hispasat contracts show the advantages of competition for satellite makers. They now have more than one company to choose from, and are spreading their business around to give them options while encouraging these companies to compete against each other by lowering prices.

Proton failure investigation finds quality control the root problem

In the heat of competition: The Russian investigation into the most recent Proton rocket launch failure has now found that the cause of the turbo pump failure was because of significant management failures.

The investigation into the MexSat-1 failure established that a fast spinning shaft inside a turbine of the RD-0212 engine propelling the third stage can break easily due to excessive vibrations. (The turbine is designed to pump propellant into four thrusters which steer the rocket in flight.) Yet, despite the problem lingering in the engine’s design for decades, the fact that two of these three accidents had happened in the past 15 months was itself is not an accident!

In an interview with the Russian business web site BFM.ru, the head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov disclosed that due to recent easing of requirements for the quality of metal that had gone into the production of the shaft, the turbine became more vulnerable to vibrations. Additional fascinating details on the same issue had surfaced on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine.

As it turned out, dangerously low requirements for the turbine shaft were set in the design documentation during the development of the rocket. However the issue was identified early during testing and the production team self-imposed extra margins for the affected components to remedy the problem. However in 2013, the new management began questioning why so much manufactured parts had been disqualified during production, even when they had met lowest requirements set in the design documentation. By that time, the new generation of workers and mid-level production managers no longer saw a reason to fight for more stringent requirements, which were actually making their own work more difficult. As a result, the hardware which was barely making through the quality control was certified for the installation on the engine, thus giving the old design flaw more chances to surface. [emphasis mine]

The description above reminds me strongly of the circumstances that took place prior to the Challenger failure in 1986: Engineers trying to fix a problem that managers don’t want to see.

Angara to launch commercial payload on next launch

The competition heats up: Russia has decided to accelerate use of its heavy Angara rocket by launching a commercial payload on its next launch in 2016.

They had initially planned to do more test flights. The technical problems with Proton, combined with increased competition from SpaceX and others, is forcing them to move at a less leisurely pace.

In the meantime, they have concluded their investigation into the Progress/Soyuz rocket failure, issuing an incredibly vague press release that only stated the following:

The damage to the ship during its abnormal separation from the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle resulted from a particular property of the joint use of the cargo spacecraft and the launch vehicle. This design property was related to frequency and dynamic characteristics of joint vehicles. This design property was not fully accounted for during the development of the rocket and spacecraft complex.

Limitations on further flights of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket with other spacecraft had not been found.

It sounds to me as if they don’t know exactly what caused the abnormal separation between the rocket and the spacecraft, and that they have decided to move on regardless.

I think it would be very wise for the U.S. to get its own manned spacecraft operational as fast as possible.

Proton third stage design problem cause most recent failure

The Russian investigation into the latest Proton rocket has concluded that the failure was caused by a design failure in the rocket’s third stage.

While it is always possible for new design issues to be discovered, I wonder why this problem hadn’t been noticed in the decades prior to 2010, when the Proton began to have repeated failures.

Criminal charges against Russian workers who caused Proton failure

The three Russian technicians and their supervisor whose sloppy work caused the spectacular 2013 crash of a Proton rocket immediately after launch have now been indicted on criminal charges and will face trial.

According to investigators, Grishin, Nikolayev and Gudkova in 2011 were tasked with installing the angular rate sensors on the Proton rocket that are responsible for yaw control. “As a result of their violation of technical discipline envisaged by engineering and technological documentation, these sensors were installed incorrectly / at 180 degrees from their correct position/,” Markin said.

The installation error accounted for the vehicle’s wild trajectory, causing its crash and destruction. During the investigation, Grishin and Nikolayev partly admitted their guilt in committing the crime, he said.

In his turn, Nasibulin guided by the fact that over a long time no violations had been found during the installation process and also amid the job cuts withdrew the control operation from a respective list. He did not monitor the process and the sensors were installed without the due control.

Note that they didn’t sabotage anything intentionally. They only did bad work. In the U.S. such incompetence would certainly get them fired, but no one would dream of prosecuting them under these circumstances. It appears that Putin’s government has decided to make them scapegoats and an example to everyone else: Do your work right or else!

Along these lines, Russian government officials have also indicated they are considering imposing fines on manufacturers for any future failures or delays.

Both the criminal indictments and the fines would surely work to prevent further disasters. They will also work very effectively in preventing any risk-taking or innovation from anyone. Who wants to build something new and untested if there is a strong possibility its failure will get you in prison?

Do not expect much creativity from the Russian aerospace industry in the coming years.

Corruption in the Russian space industry

A slew of stories in the Russian press today illustrate again the deeply ingrained problems that country has, both in corruption and in its ability to produce a quality product.

The last story describes the overall scale of the corruption, which is not confined just to the space sector, but can be found in many industries. The aerospace industry just happens to be the most visible outside Russia, and thus the most embarrassing. Yet,
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Russians delay next Angara launch to replace Briz upper stage

The competition heats up? The Russians have delayed until late 2016 the first test flight of the heavy-lift version of their new Angara rocket so that they can fly it with its own new upper stage, rather than using the trouble-plagued Briz upper stage used on Proton.

In other words, they want to dump all the components of the Proton as soon as possible. Whether this will solve the quality control problems that seem to be systemic to their aerospace industry however remains questionable. If I was a commercial satellite company I would have as little faith in Angara, until it has proven itself through a number of launches.

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