Tag Archives: Russia

Problems with Russia force private company to deemphasize ISS cameras

UrtheCast has been forced to write off almost $8 million because it has not been able fully use its two cameras installed on the Russian half of ISS.

The Vancouver-based company said its was writing off some of the cameras’ value because of strained relations with their Russian hosts, who recently approached UrtheCast with a request to renegotiate their deal. Russian cosmonauts installed two UrtheCast cameras on the exterior of space station in 2014. The medium-resolution camera, called Theia, captures 50-kilometer swaths of multispectral imagery sharp enough to discern features 5-meters across. The high-resolution camera, called Iris, records ultra-high-def-quality, full-color video of the Earth and still images at a resolution of one meter per pixel. Iris entered service only last year due to technical issues.

Wade Larson, UrtheCast’s co-founder and chief executive, told investors during a Nov. 10 conference call that tensions between Russia and the U.S. and its allies are spilling over into UrtheCast’s agreement with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and Russia’s lead space station contractor RSC Energia. “There’s been some geopolitical challenges that have influenced this relationship and candidly … that has impacted our ability to task these cameras operationally,” Larson said.

In the long run, this is very bad for the Russians. It shows them to be an unreliable business partner, which will increasingly limit their ability to attract business from outside Russia.

Russians to put first centrifuge on ISS

Russia today announced that they are developing and plan to launch the first small centrifuge ever to fly in space.

The centrifuge would be installed on an inflatable module that Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, which specializes in studying the medical problems of space travel, is building, and would be used to study the effects of artificial gravity in weightlessness.

Unfortunately, the announcement doesn’t tell us much more than this. Based on previous such announcements from Russia, I would not be surprised if this project never flies.

Russia to test components of nuclear engine on ISS

The competition heats up: Roscosmos is planning this week to award a research grant for test flying components on ISS of a nuclear rocket engine Russia has been developing since 2009.

The small amount of money, about $4 million, likely means this will not be a full scale model. Moreover, that this research grant is only being awarded now, seven years after the program began, suggests to me that work is going very slowly. While the delays might be technical, I suspect it is more likely because of the underlying corruption that percolates throughout the government-run Russian system. The project is being slow-walked, so that the funds will be available to the one Russian company that is doing the work for as long as possible.

Russia and ESA in money dispute

A money dispute between Russia and France could threaten the ESA/Russian ExoMars partnership, as well as the Arianespace deal that launches Soyuz rockets from French Guiana.

In what appears to be an attempt to force France’s European neighbors to apply pressure to Paris, Roscosmos hinted that multiple cooperative space efforts between Russian and the European Union, and with the European Space Agency (ESA), could suffer if the payments are not freed. The payments, which are not disputed by Arianespace, have been one of the collateral effects of the battle by former shareholders of Russia’s Yukos oil company. In 2014, these shareholders won an initial award of $50 billion from an international arbitration panel in The Hague, Netherlands, against the Russian government for dismantling the company.

Since then, the shareholders have been trying to collect Russian government assets wherever they find a sympathetic legal environment outside Russia, including France and Belgium. In France, different shareholder representatives sought seizure of the Eutelsat and Arianespace payments. The same dispute has blocked payments to other Russian companies. Paris-based satellite operator Eutelsat owes Russia’s biggest satellite operator, Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) of Moscow, around $300 million for services related to Eutelsat use of RSCC satellites.

Russia needs cash, which is why they need their partnership with Arianespace, which has brought them a lot of cash over time. Their problem is that the money owed the Yukos oil company shareholders has allowed those shareholders to put liens on any Russian earnings in Europe, which has only increased Russia’s financial bind. If Russia can’t get its hands on its Arianespace earnings, then it really makes no sense for them to continue the partnership. Better to threaten to pull out with the hope that the threat will maybe force payment.

Moreover, Russia might also be realizing that it cannot at present afford to participate in ExoMars and is looking for a way to get out of that commitment. This money dispute gives them that out.

Russia considers using Ukrainian rocket

For the first time since it annexed Crimea, Russia has opened negotiations with a Ukrainian company to possibly use its Zenit rocket to launch a Russian satellite.

RKK Energia of Korolev, Russia, entered negotiations with KB Yuzhnoe of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, on a potential deal to launch a satellite for Angola on a Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket. Under the proposed plan, the Angosat-1 satellite would ride the last fully assembled Zenit rocket still remaining in Baikonur. The mission is seen by industry insiders as the first step in the resumption of Zenit missions, which if successful, will eventually shift from Baikonur to the Sea Launch ocean-going platform based in Long Beach, California.

The situation here is beyond complicated. Russia remains in many ways in a state of war with Ukraine. Yet, the Sea Launch platform, recently purchased by a Russian airline company, needs the Ukrainian Zenit rocket. It appears that this need is forcing the Russians to once again buy from the Ukraine. At the same time, Sea Launch remains parked in the U.S., and will likely not be available until Sea Launch and Russia settle the lawsuit Boeing has filed against the company. Meanwhile, the Zenit rocket in question however needs refurbishing and was originally built to launch a different satellite, which will have to agree to fly on a different launch vehicle.

Something in the Kremlin is jamming GPS

It appears that any GPS unit that approaches the Kremlin in Moscow can no longer pinpoint accurately its location.

A programmer for Russian internet firm Yandex, Grigory Bakunov, said Thursday his research showed a system for blocking GPS was located inside the Kremlin, the heavily guarded official residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Users of GPS have complained on social media in recent months that when they are near the Kremlin their GPS-powered apps stop working or show them to be in Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, 29 kilometers (18 miles) away.

The problem has frustrated those requesting taxis via services such as Uber or looking to catch Pokemons in the popular game played on mobile devices. Large numbers of people running the Moscow marathon last month complained that their jogging apps lost track of how far they had run when they passed the Kremlin.
“I got 40 kilometers added on to my distance. It happened by the Kremlin,” marathoner Andrey Yegorov wrote on Facebook as part of a discussion by runners.

Not surprisingly, the agency in charge of security at the Kremlin declined to comment.

ExoMars 2016 in detail

This Nature article provides a nice summary of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission that on Wednesday will try to place a lander on Mars as well as put an orbiter in orbit.

Neither probe is going to provide many exciting photos. The orbiter, dubbed boringly the Trace Gas Orbiter, is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere, while the lander, Schiaparelli, is essentially a technology test mission for planning and designing what Europe and Russia hope will be a more ambitious lander/orbiter mission in 2020.

Anyone expecting spectacular pictures from Schiaparelli itself might be disappointed — photos will be limited to 15 black-and-white shots of the Martian surface from the air, intended to help piece together the craft’s trajectory. No photos will be taken on the surface, because the lander lacks a surface camera.

Schiaparelli’s instruments will study the Martian atmosphere, including the possible global dust storm that might happen this month but so far has not yet appeared. The instruments will also be able to detect lightning, should it exist on Mars.

Schiaparelli lander successfully separates from orbiter

In preparation for its Mars landing on October 19, Schiaparelli has successfully separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission.

They had some initial communications issues soon after separation, all of which have now been resolved.

ExoMars 2016 bearing down on Mars

This article provides a detailed look at Sunday’s arrival of ExoMars 2016 at Mars.

If all goes right the Schiaparelli lander will soft land on the surface while the Trace Gas Orbiter will enter an initial 185 by 60,000 mile orbit, which will slowly be adjusted so that by January it can begin its atmospheric research.

Though the Russian contribution to this mission was only the rocket that sent it to Mars, if the mission succeeds it will be the first time any Mars mission with major Russian participation has succeeded. The failure rate for any Russian effort to go to Mars has been 100%. And it hasn’t been because the missions have been particularly difficult. The majority of their failures occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, even as they were very successfully completing much harder lander missions to Venus.

It has almost as if there is a curse against any Russian attempt to visit the Red Planet. Hopefully, that curse will finally be broken on Sunday.

No more manned Soyuz purchased by NASA after 2019

The competition heats up: Both Boeing and SpaceX better get their manned capsules working by 2019, because NASA at this point has no plans to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules after the present contract runs out.

Even as the commercial crew schedules move later into 2018, NASA officials say they are not considering extending the contract with Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — for more launches in 2019. The last Soyuz launch seats reserved for U.S. astronauts are at the end of 2018.

It takes more than two years to procure components and assemble new Soyuz capsules, so Russia needed to receive new Soyuz orders from NASA by some time this fall to ensure the spacecraft would be ready for liftoff in early 2019.

The second paragraph above notes that even if NASA decided it needed more Soyuz launches, it is probably too late to buy them and have them available by 2019.

Russia gets two contracts for Proton

The competition heats up: Russia has signed two new contracts using its newly announced Proton-Medium rocket configuration.

Both contracts are for the same launch. The primary payload will be a Intelsat communications satellite. The secondary payload will be Orbital ATK’s first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), which is actually more significant and somewhat ground-breaking.

The MEV-1 provides life-extending services by taking over the propulsion and attitude control functions. Satellites have an average of 15 years of life on orbit, before they need to be replaced. The vehicle itself has a 15-year design life with the ability to perform numerous dockings and undockings during its life span. “Rather than launching new satellites, operators can extend the life of healthy in-orbit satellites, providing enhanced flexibility through Orbital ATK’s scalable and cost-efficient capabilities,” noted Our simple approach minimizes risk, enhances mission assurance, and enables our customers to realize the maximum value of their in-orbit satellite assets.”

The launch of MEV-1 will involve in-orbit testing and a demonstration to be performed with an Intelsat satellite. MEV-1 will then relocate to the Intelsat satellite scheduled for the mission extension service, which is planned for a five-year period. Intelsat will also have the option to service multiple satellites using the same MEV.

If MEV-1 proves successful, Orbital ATK will have built, launched, and made money from the first robot repair satellite. While at first glance this success suggests that satellite companies will need to launch fewer satellites, thus reducing the market demand for rockets, what it will really do is make the orbiting satellite more useful and profitable, thus encouraging new players to enter the market. The demand for satellites will increase, thus increasing the demand for rockets.

Ain’t freedom and private enterprise grand?

Vitas – Opera #2

An evening pause: Hat tip Jim Mallamace, who also provides an English translation of the Russian lyrics, which I think combine very well with the dark and intriguing performance.

My house has been built,
But I’m alone in it.
A door was slammed behind my back.
Autumn wind is knocking at the window,
It’s crying over me again.
It was thunderstorm last night,
So it’s foggy in the morning.
The Sun got quite cold.
Old anguishes
Are going in a long train.
Let them get together.

My house has been built,
But I’m alone in it.
A door was slammed behind my back.
Autumn wind is knocking at the window,
It’s crying over me again.
It’s my fate, I can’t
Ask my fate for anything.
I only know, how the winds
Will cry after I’ve gone.

Office politics delays Russian ISS module

It appears that the reason work has stalled once again on Russia’s long delayed next module for ISS, the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), is literally because of office politics between government officials.

According to industry sources, the management at the military certification authority apparently ran into worsening relations with the leadership of the space industry.

In other words, there was some spat between the military guy and the space guy, and in revenge the military guy used his authority to stop all work.

More delays for Russia’s next ISS module

Work has stalled again on Russia’s Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), threatening its presently scheduled launch to ISS by the end of 2017.

According to industry sources, most of replacement components for the MLM’s faulty propulsion system had already been manufactured, except for the pipelines, which would have to be bent based on their particular situation on the module. Still, military quality control officers, who now certify all space industry manufacturing operations, refused to give the green light for the final assembly of the propulsion system for the MLM.

Work on MLM began in 2008, and has been delayed repeatedly in the past eight years.

Russia to break safety rules to repair Soyuz capsule

In order to replace a burnt capsule quickly in its Soyuz capsule, Russia will ignore its own safety rules and allow the engineers to work without draining the capsule of its propellants and gases.

Sources close to investigation told RussianSpaceWeb.com that a cable located behind the cosmonaut seats inside the Descent Module of the Vehicle No. 732 had accidentally been bent severely enough to damage its insulation. As it turned out, the problem had nothing to do with the encapsulation of the spacecraft inside its payload fairing on September 15, as was initially thought.

Replacing the damaged cable is relatively straight forward, but it now has to be conducted on the vehicle fully loaded with toxic propellants and pressurized gases. Such an attempt would violate usual safety rules, but draining the spacecraft off its propellants and gases would likely be even more unprecedented and require lengthy repairs.

The big issue here is not the willingness of Roscosmos management to break its safety rules. In fact, believe it or not, those rules are possibly too strict. The repairs are taking place inside the capsule where the astronauts sit. If it is too dangerous for engineers to be there with the capsule fueled, then it would be too dangerous for the astronauts. Granted, engineers don’t usually sign up for those kinds of dangers, but then, if you are an engineer in the field of rocket science I suspect you did sign up, and expect them.

No, what is significant about this story is the bent cable and its damaged insulation, which was bad enough that the cable actually burnt, based on other reports. It suggests a variety of issues in the construction of this capsule, all of which are worrisome. First and foremost, how is it possible for insulation to break simply by bending a cable? Is the insulation that badly made? Or have they such low tolerances for the insulation (possibly to save weight) that it requires a very careful installation that in this case was done badly?

This is also only the second launch of an upgraded Soyuz capsule. Could it be that they haven’t worked out all the kinks in its design? If not, they have been making Soyuz capsules for literally decades. One would think that the people that install this wiring would know its tolerances and not make such a mistake.

I know I am being somewhat harsh here, but that harshness comes after seeing repeated quality control problems in a variety of Russian-built aerospace hardware in recent years. In the previous cases, however, the problems did not involve a manned flight. This one did, and if those same quality control problems are now showing up with Soyuz, that is a very bad thing.

Russian engineers locate short circuit problem on Soyuz

Russian engineers have now located the short circuit that scrubbed this week’s manned Soyuz launch to ISS.

The official added that there would be no need dismantling the space carrier to fix the detected problem “as we will replace certain parts and then conduct the required tests before the launch.” Solntsev also said that the required spare parts to fix the malfunction and specialists to carry out the repair works were already present at the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan, where the spacecraft was scheduled to take off.

Though the repair will be quick to fix, they are still sticking with the November 1st launch date, probably because any earlier slot is now taken by Orbital ATK’s Antares/Cygnus launch.

Update: The wording of a new report today, one day later than the report above, describing the problem as “a burnt cable”, is intriguing. A short circuit implies that they sensed some of the circuitry was not reading correctly and that some wiring had to be inspected and either rerouted or given more insulation. A “burnt cable” however suggests the short circuit was far worse and almost turned into a fire.

Manned Soyuz launch delayed until November

Roscosmos today confirmed that the short circuit discovered during prelaunch tests will delay the launch of a manned Soyuz to ISS until November.

Though they still have not described the problem in any detail, this article gives some insight:

According to industry sources, the delay was caused by a short circuit, which took place during roll-on of the payload fairing, which protects the spacecraft during its ascent through the atmosphere. The problem was not detected until the vehicle had been rotated back to a vertical position and was being prepared for the second fit check at Site 254 in Baikonur. The situation was complicated by the fact that engineers could not immediately identify the location of the short circuit in the fully assembled spacecraft. Preliminary estimates indicated that such an issue inside the descent module, SA, could require several weeks to fix, however if the problem was in the instrument module, PAO, it could take several months to resolve.

In worst case scenario, mission officials might decide to replace the Soyuz vehicle No. 732, which was affected by the problem, with Vehicle No. 733 originally intended for the Soyuz MS-03 mission. According to the official Russian media, the launch of the Soyuz MS-02 might be postponed until at least the beginning of October.

Putin to revive the KGB

The coming dark age: One day after Putin’s party won an easy election victory it has announced that they plan on reviving the secret security force known previously as the KGB.

“The KGB was one of the strongest special services in the world – everyone recognised this,” Sergei Goncharov, who served in Russia’s now disbanded Alpha counter-terror unit in the 1990s, told state media. Mr Goncharov also said the creation of the MGB would provide Russia with a “strong fist” overseen by a unified leadership.

Kremlin critics were horrified by the possible rebirth of an organisation synonymous in Russia with political oppression. “It’s time to get out [of the country],” wrote Elshad Babaev, a Twitter user. “Anyone who can should take the opportunity.”

Unlike the 20th century, however, the west can no longer be called “the free world”, as it was then. Instead, we are lumbering toward the same evils, and thus do not necessarily provide a safe haven for real political refugees that we were then. Instead, our bankrupt intellectual leadership has been rushing to bring in fifth columnists from the Middle East while leaving the real refugees there to suffer persecution by Islamic radicals.

A detailed look at the Russian elections today

Link here. The analysis is detailed and thoughtful, and gives some perspective about the state of power and control by the present leaders in Russia.

Four parties are expected to secure again their representation in the Duma: the ruling United Russia (UR), the Liberal-Democratic Russian party (LDPR), led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Just Russia, led by Sergei Mironov, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), led by Gennadi Zyuganov.[1] In contrast, the democratic opposition has fewer chances of being represented. The opposition Russian Democratic Party (“Yabloko”) and People’s Party of Freedom (RPR-PARNAS), cofounded by murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov (October 9, 1959-February 27, 2015), will contest the elections separately – a suicidal tactic that mathematically further reduces their already slim chances to enter the Duma and further reduces the credibility of Russian liberalism. The democratic opposition is represented in the elections by yet another independent nominee -Maria Baronova, running with the support of Open Russia movement, founded by former oil tycoon-turned-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, residing out of Russia after his release from long term jail.

Bottom line: Putin will remain in power, no matter what happens in today’s elections. Nonetheless, the article is worth reading because it gives some sense of what might happen after Putin.

Russian government going broke

The Russian government, faced with low oil prices, a weak ruble, and a big budget, has been depleting its cash reserves and could run out of money within a year.

The government’s reserve fund is designed to cover shortfalls in the national budget at times of low oil and gas revenues.

Russia’s 2016 budget is based on the assumption the country would be able to sell its oil for $50 per barrel. But the average oil price in the first eight months of the year was less than $43 per barrel. Oil now makes up just 37% of all government revenues, compared to roughly 50% just two years ago.

When their reserve funds run out, they will then dip into another fund reserved for pensions and investment projects. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Kind of like the approach the big Democratically controlled U.S. cities like New York have used to continue to spend money they didn’t have.

It is interesting to compare Russia and China these days, especially considering the state of both of their space programs. Despite the fact that many say that China’s success is hollow, they have still been able to fund and build what is now a very vibrant and new manned and planetary space effort. Russia however cannot build anything new, and is now faced with reducing its ISS crew complement because it can’t afford to launch the supplies required for three people.

It will be very interesting to watch this story in Russia unfold.

Russia postpones September 23 manned Soyuz launch

For unexplained “technical reasons” Russia has postponed the manned launch of three astronauts to ISS on Friday, September 23.

“Roscosmos decided to postpone launch of the spacecraft Soyuz MS-02, scheduled for September 23, 2016, due to technical reasons after control testing at the Baikonur space center [in Kazakhstan],” the statement said.

Russian ISS crews to be reduced beginning in spring 2017

Russia today made it official: Beginning in the spring of 2017 their crews to ISS will be reduced from 3 to 2, and will remain reduced until they launch their next ISS module.

“In case the endorsed schedule is observed and the MLM gets into operation in December 2017, the curtailment will affect only one Russian crew,” the source said. “Otherwise the practice of curtailment will continue until the commissioning of the module.”

The Russian state space corporation Roscosmos has to downsize the ISS mission crew as the number of Progress cargo ships launched to the ISS annually will be reduced to three from four at present in the wake of NASA’s refusal to continue using the Progresses and to change over to new U.S. cargo carriers instead, the source said, adding that three Progresses a year is not enough to support three cosmonauts working at the ISS permanently.

The finances will get even more squeezed when the U.S. no longer needs them to launch its astronauts.

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.

Russians consider building another new rocket

The competition heats up? The Russian government is considering building another new rocket that would be based more on Proton than Angara and could function eventually as the foundation for a heavy-lift rocket.

At the heart of the new design was the idea to enlarge the diameter of the Zenit rocket from 3.8 to 4.1 meters, so it could match the “caliber” of the Proton rocket. As a result, the Proton’s production machinery could be re-used with relatively few upgrades to manufacture the new-generation launcher, after its predecessor’s planned retirement in mid-2020s. Unlike Proton, all stages on Sunkar would burn non-toxic kerosene and liquid oxygen, as it had long been insisted upon by the Kazakh government. The Sunkar could utilize the existing launch and processing infrastructure for the Zenit rocket in Baikonur, which could be funded by Kazakhstan.

…Ironically, the proposal to develop yet another type of space launcher essentially reverses the previous strategy at GKNPTs Khrunichev of relying on a modular architecture of the Angara family to cover the entire spectrum of space payloads. However, unlike Angara’s standard booster, URM-1, the first stage of the Sunkar rocket will be large enough to serve as a building block for a future super-heavy rocket, reaching payloads of at least 80 tons, so it could serve as the main vehicle for the deep-space exploration program. Therefore, the Sunkar proposal can be considered as the first step in building a more powerful family of space rockets in Russia.

Run as a single government entity, it appears to me that the Russian aerospace industry is struggling with its decision-making process. Without some internal profit-oriented competition, they have no method for focusing their efforts on any design. Rather than have multiple independent companies competing for profit with their own individual designs, Roscosmos’s management can only make its decisions after much office politics, the logic of which often has nothing to do with the best or most efficient concept. Their one saving grace is that, rather than competing with themselves to thus encourage fast and efficient development, they will be competing with other countries — especially the American private sector — and that will eventually give them the impetus to build something.

More budget cuts to Russia’s space program

The head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, revealed today that there will be significant additional cuts to the country’s space program in the coming months.

These cuts come on top of the almost one-third cuts imposed from the time the budget for the ten-year plan was first proposed in 2015 and its adoption early this year.

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