Amid Celebrations Over Dragon’s Success, Gloom Across Three Continents Over Space Failures

NanoSail-D - Lost in space? (Credit: NASA)

As upstart SpaceX was feted this week for the successful flight and recovery of its first Dragon spacecraft, engineers on three continents were puzzling out the reasons behind three high-profile failures in space, demonstrating anew the challenges associated with the difficult field.

In Russia, officials watched as a Proton rocket sent three navigational satellites to the bottom of the Pacific off Hawaii, delaying the nation’s efforts to provide full global coverage for its GLONASS program. Japanese engineers scratched their heads over why their Akatsuki probe ended up in orbit around the sun instead of Venus. And NASA is not quite sure what happened to an experimental solar sail satellite that blasted off into space from Alaska.


The Russians quickly identified the reason why Proton failed. The three-stage rocket itself worked fine, but a new Block DM transfer stage being used for the first time had too much fuel in its larger tanks. The extra weight caused the Proton’s third stage to under perform, placing the Block DM stage and three GLONASS navigational satellites into a lower-than-planned altitude. The transfer stage was unable to overcome the deficiency in altitude.

The quick diagnosis means that Proton can be placed back in service this month. This is a relief to International Launch Services (ILS), which markets the Proton for commercial launches. ILS has moved the planned Dec. 20 launch of a Ka-Sat satellite back by seven to 10 days while it verifies the findings of the investigation board. The Proton will use a different Breeze M upper stage to boost the satellite into orbit.

Russian President Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was furious and angrily ordered an immediate investigation into the failure in the high-profile GLONASS program, which the Russian equivalent of the American GPS service.

Roscosmos officials took the failure in stride, with agency Head Anatoly Perminov pointing out that accidents happen in spaceflight and that this one resulted in neither loss of life nor damage to the launch pad. He said it would cause only a minor delay in Russia’s efforts to complete the GLONASS constellation to provide full global coverage for navigation. In an interview with Izvestia published on the Roscosmos website, Perminov said:

“GLONASS constellation consists of 20 operational and 2 backup satellites. 18 satellites are sufficient to cover Russian territory, 24- for global coverage. Soyuz rocket with Lavochkin company’s Fregat upper stage is slated for launch in Dec. from Plesetsk to loft Glonass-K of new generation, which we wanted to test only, but now we are planning to use it in the orbital constellation. 2 backup satellites will be also added to the constellation. Totally, it will be 23 satellites. Reshetnev Informational Satellite Systems of Krasnoyarsk is in process manufacturing one more GLONASS satellite. In 3-4 months, this spacecraft is to be available. It may well be so, that we will manage to mobilize our resources and produce additional spacecraft; we are studying this issue currently.

I would like to emphasize that GPS deployment also faced some accidents. It is not possible to avoid emergencies in such complicated systems. It’s the task of the engineers, to bring the accident rate to minimum.”

JAXA's Akatsuki Venus spacecraft. (Image by Akihiro Ikeshita)

Meanwhile, JAXA officials believe that engine pressure problems caused the Akatsuki spacecraft to slip past Venus and enter orbit around the sun instead:

It remains unknown what caused the sudden slowdown in propulsion, but JAXA officials suspect problems with the engine burn, resulting from a lack of fuel, may have damaged the engine nozzle.

The fuel tank is supposed to maintain its internal pressure while the engine is being fired by injecting helium gas as fuel is pushed out. But the pressure in Akatsuki’s tank is believed to have weakened as fuel was gradually consumed, making it impossible for the tank to properly supply fuel to the engine.

JAXA officials suspect there were faults in the pipes and valves used to inject helium.

Agency officials believe that damage to the rocket’s nozzle could prevent them from making another attempt to place the spacecraft in orbit around Venus when a second opportunity occurs six years from now.

NanoSail-D (Credit: NASA)

Over at NASA, engineers are trying to puzzle out the fate of NanoSail-D, an experimental solar sail satellite that was launched last month from Alaska. The latest update on the project’s website states:

At this time, it is not clear that NanoSail-D ejected from the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT) as originally stated on Monday, Dec. 6. At the time of ejection, spacecraft telemetry data showed a positive ejection as reflected by confirmation of several of the planned on-orbit ejection sequence events. The FASTSAT spacecraft ejection system data was also indicative of an ejection event. NanoSail-D was scheduled to unfurl on Dec. 9 at 12:30 a.m., and deployment hasn’t been confirmed. The FASTSAT team is continuing to trouble shoot the inability to make contact with NanoSail-D. The FASTSAT microsatellite and all remaining five onboard experiments continue to operate as planned.

This is a shame, but experiments fail all the time. And being a nanosat, it should not be that difficult to replace.