Tag Archives: Proton

Proton successfully launches Russian military satellite

Russia today successfully used its Proton rocket to place a military communications satellite in orbit.

Though primarily a military satellite, it will also be used by civilian customers as well.

Meanwhile, in their effort to recover from last year’s engine recall that practically shut down their launch industry, the Russians are trying to up their launch rate, with additional Proton launches now set for September 9 and 28. At the moment, they and SpaceX are tied for the most launches in 2017, and I suspect it will be a neck and neck race for the rest of the year.

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More Russian launch delays

Three stories out of Russia today suggest that that country’s aerospace industry has not yet fixed all of its quality control problems.

The last two stories both refer to the launch of Germany’s Spektr-RG, which was originally supposed to launch in 2014. The most recent schedule said the astronomical observatory would be launched in September 2018. That they need an extra month in order to “integration and ground development of the Spektr-RG spacecraft” does not seem out of line. At the same time, that they do not provide any reasons for the delay raises questions.

Meanwhile, that the Proton rocket for the Amazonas-5 launch has not yet been shipped seems incredible. The September 9 launch date was announced on August 9. You would expect that by now Russian companies would know exactly how long it takes to get a rocket to the launchpad. This suggests another more fundamental problem with the rocket that they are not revealing.

I know I am being a bit harsh on the Russians here. A more positive spin (which also might be true) might be that they are finally getting a handle on their quality control issues, and the result is these few additional delays as they clean things up.

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Russia lowers its Proton launch plans for 2017

Though they are about to resume Proton launches, Russia today revealed that they only intend to launch the rocket five times in 2017, not seven as announced earlier.

Russia plans five Proton-M carrier rocket launches this year, including three commercial launches, Khrunichev Space Center CEO Andrei Kalinovsky told TASS on Wednesday. “Our plans for this year also additionally include four Proton-M carrier rocket launches. These are two commercial launches with Amazonas 5 and AsiaSat 9 satellites, and also two federal launches,” the chief executive said.

Even more interesting, the article notes that Russia only has contracts to launch 15 commercial satellites through 2023. That’s a launch rate of only about 2.5 to 3 commercial Proton launches per year, a rate that seems much less than in the past. Moreover, while they say they haven’t lost any customers in the past year, it also appears they haven’t gotten any either.

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Proton rolled to launchpad for June 8 launch

After a pause in launches lasting one day short of a full year, Russia has rolled its Proton rocket to the launchpad for a hoped-for June 8 launch of a commercial communications satellite.

The article provides a nice overview of Russia’s struggles during the past year, attempting to track down the reasons why their rockets were having problems (corruption at the rocket engine factory) and their repeated attempts to get this rocket off the ground.

They hope, if all goes well, to complete seven Proton launches through the end of 2017 in order to clean up their backlog while also demonstrating that they have solved their quality control problems.

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Russia responds to SpaceX reused booster success

A bunch of stories from Russia today appear to express that country’s political response to SpaceX’s success yesterday in launching a commercial satellite using a previously flown first stage.

It appears that these stories are quoting a variety of Russian officials who apparently did not get their stories straight. Also, it appears that much of what they are saying here is pure bluster. For example, in the third link the official makes the silly claim that the ability of their rocket engines to be started and then restarted repeatedly proves they are dedicated to re-usability. And the first two links don’t provide much back-up for the claims that they can complete with SpaceX, especially since SpaceX presently charges a third less than they do per launch, and that is using new boosters. With reused boosters SpaceX’s launch fees will be less than half what Russia has been charging for a Proton launch ($90 million vs $40 million).

Similarly, the claim that they will complete 30 launches this years is absurd. They won’t be able to launch Proton until May, at the soonest, because of the need to remove defective parts from all of their in-stock engines. Soyuz launches are similarly delayed while they check its engines also. To complete 30 launches in only seven months seems very unrealistic to me, especially since the best they have done in a full year this century is 34 launches, with an average slightly less than 30 per year.

Nonetheless, this spate of stories and statements by Russian officials shows that they are feeling the heat of competition, and also feel a need to respond. The first story has this significant statement:

Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is responding to the challenges with available possibilities, he added. “It has announced a considerable reduction in the cost of Proton rocket launches. The commercial price of this rocket’s launch is considerably higher than its prime cost and we have the potential for the price cut. But customers are giving up our services because the number of payloads [satellites] remains unchanged and does not grow. Correspondingly, a new player on the market snatches away a part of orders,” the expert noted.

Because of Russia’s low labor costs they have always had a large profit margin on their Proton launches. The $90 million they charged was set just below what Arianespace charged for its launches. It appears they are now planning to lower their prices further to match SpaceX.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Bad solder joints cause of Russian Proton engine defects

The problem that has forced the Russians to recall all Proton second and third stage engines has been identified as the use of the wrong materials in solder joints.

According to specifications, the structural walls and the nozzle chamber of the gas generator had to be fused together with the help of the solder designated G70NKh, which employs nickel, chromium and manganese alloy (Ni-Cr-Mn). However the investigation revealed that due to mismanagement of the raw material usage at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, the required alloy had been replaced with the PZhK-1000 solder comprised of palladium, nickel, chromium and silicon (Pd-Ni-Cr-Si). Because the replaced solder did not meet specifications, it could lead to structural disintegration of the nozzle head during the firing of the gas generator.

The discovery of the problem with the solder triggered inspection of other engines and revealed that all RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines from the second and third stages that had been manufactured during 2015 and 2016 had been equipped with defective gas generators. In order to re-certify these engines for flight, each of them would have to be disassembled, the gas generator would have to be removed and replaced, followed by the re-assembly and re-testing of each engine!

The article also notes that the next Angara rocket is also “unfit for flight” due to unspecified defects. It also notes widespread corruption and mismanagement throughout the Russian aerospace industry.

Sadly, the decision by the Putin administration to consolidate their industry into one huge corporation run by the government, and thus eliminate any competition, is only going to make solving this problem more difficult. What Russia needs is competition, with many different companies free to challenge each other for business. It also needs to allow companies to fail and go out of business.

Instead, everything is controlled from above, and thus no competition can happen. Rather than finding a new company to build these engines, the government is going to provide the company “economic aid” in order to modernize it. This is like putting a band-aid on a broken bone.

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Practically every Russian Proton rocket engine defective

The investigation of the Russian supply of rocket engines for its Proton rocket has discovered that practically every engine, numbering over seventy, had defects that needed repair.

71 engines, mostly used to power the second and third stages of the Proton rocket, require complete overhauls to remove defects. Arbuzov did not specify what was wrong with the engines. In January, Interfax reported on an investigation into high-quality metals swapped by a plant manager for cheaper alternatives. “Most of the work will be done in 2017, but we understand that some portion will inevitably slip into 2018,” Arbuzov said. “Our main goal is to avoid disrupting the government space program’s launch schedule, or the schedules of the Defense Ministry and commercial customers.”

There is also the possibility that these defects will be found in Soyuz rocket engines as well. Stay tuned.

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Next Proton launch tentatively set for May

The Russians have tentatively scheduled their next Proton launch for May, contingent on the repair work being done on the rocket’s engines.

The engine repairs are required because of corruption in the factory that made them. Previously, the Russians had hoped to get Proton off the ground by April. That is no longer likely.

The link above includes a manifest of Russian launches through next year. Interestingly, it only includes three commercial launches. A quick review of the launches listed at this site only includes another three or so commercial launches much farther in the future. All in all, it appears that the Russians are getting less business for this rocket. I also suspect this will remain the case until they get things fixed and begin launching again, though they will need to cut their prices significantly to match SpaceX’s.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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