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Problem found with Soyuz set for Arianespace commercial launch

Russian engineers have found a problem with Freget upper stage used on their Soyuz rocket and set for an Arianespace commercial launch in French Guiana this spring.

According to the source, “a microhole has been found in one of the upper stage’s pipes, which apparently emerged during a long transportation of the booster to the spaceport in French Guiana.”

“Now the specialists of the Lavochkin Research and Production Association [Fregat’s manufacturer] are dealing with this malfunction, by the end of the week they should specify the types of the works needed for eliminating it,” the source said.

The launch may be postponed from late February until March due to this situation.

This problem might not be related to Russia’s ongoing quality control problems. It could simply be a consequence of the difficulty of shipping a rocket across the globe. At the same time, the thought must not be dismissed. They say the microhole occurred during transport, but there is no way to confirm this.

Either way, the problem and delay does not do the Russians good. I wonder if OneWeb, the commercial customer for this flight, is beginning to have regrets about its contract for 21 Soyuz launches to get a large percentage of its satellite constellation into orbit.

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  • Dick Eagleson

    If OneWeb isn’t having second thoughts, it should be.

    What is described as a “microhole” is almost certainly a crack of some sort in one of the many bent-tube components that one finds as parts of every liquid-propellant rocket engine. Bending a metal tube inevitably compresses the metal along the inside diameter of the bend and stretches it along the outside diameter. Stretching also thins the cross section of the tube along that outside diameter and, if either the alloy formula or heat treatment are off, cracking can occur that may range from superficial surface cracks to cracks running all the way through the tube. Virtually every step in the lifecycle of such a component presents opportunities for cracks to either form or worsen.

    1) off-nominal alloy formulation during initial smelting.

    2) crack formation/propagation during any of the steps needed to produce a seamless tube including heat treatment.

    3) crack formation/propagation during bending operations on tube due to bad alloy or improper setting or adjustment of bending machinery or errors by machine operator(s).

    4) crack formation/propagation due to errors during component handling after fabrication is complete – e.g., dropping the part on a hard surface.

    5) crack formation/propagation due to stresses from incorrect installation procedure of part onto engine.

    6) crack formation/propagation due to misadventure – e.g., bumping or dropping – with entire assembled engine.

    7) crack formation/propagation due to stresses from incorrect installation procedure of entire engine into upper stage.

    8) crack formation/propagation due to stresses from incorrect handling of entire upper stage during any phase of surface or air transport to launch site.

    9) crack formation/propagation due to incorrect handling during assembly of mission rocket stack at launch site.

    That is a minimally complete list of possible sources of the reported problem. Chasing down the precise etiology of the reported “microhole” is a non-trivial job and may not even prove possible given the degree of arse-covering-to-avoid-retribution that seems to be baked into the whole Russian space industry these days.

    In addition to their contracts with ArianeGroup for Soyuz launches, OneWeb also has launch contracts with Blue Origin for New Glenn launches and with Virgin Orbit for LauncherOne launches. If the Russian rockets prove too troublesome, BO and VO will, I’m sure, be more than pleased to step in and replace them.

  • Edward

    Because the test or inspection that found the “microhole” at the launch site was almost certainly performed after assembly and prior to shipment, the most likely sources on Dick Eagleson’s list are items 8 and 9. Otherwise this problem would have been found prior to transport to the lauch site.

    With a few exceptions, most satellites are designed and built so that two or more launch vehicles can be used, just in case the primary vehicle becomes unavailable.

    Robert wrote: “Either way, the problem and delay does not do the Russians good.

    It is unfortunate that this happened, because even though this is something that could have happened to any of the world’s rockets (Electron has recently had problems crop up), the Russians have had particularly bad quality control problems over the past decade or so, causing reduced confidence in their ability to successfully launch payloads. The corruption at the Vostochny launch site and recent use of cheaper but deficient materials in engine parts add to a sense of systemic problems in Russia.

    There once was the thought that at least the quality control problems hadn’t affected the Russian manned program, but that all changed last year.

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