Russia Led in Launch Successes and Failures in 2015

Flight VS13 was the 13th Soyuz liftoff performed from French Guiana since this vehicle’s 2011 introduction at the Spaceport. (Credit: Arianespace)
Flight VS13 was the 13th Soyuz liftoff performed from French Guiana since this vehicle’s 2011 introduction at the Spaceport. (Credit: Arianespace)

Russia continued its dominance of the global satellite launch industry in 2015, conducting 29 of 86 orbital launches over the past 12 months. It also maintained its lead in botched launches, suffering two failures and one partial failure.

The United States came in second in both categories. The nation conducted 20 launches with two failures, including the loss of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a Dragon cargo ship in June. The highlight of the year was SpaceX’s return to flight in December, during which it landed a Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral.

Russia/Europe 3  3
Russia/Ukraine 2  2
United States18220
Europe 81  9
India 5  5
Japan 4  3
Iran 1  1

China launched 19 times, introducing two new boosters in the process. Europe conducted eight orbital launches and a suborbital one in addition to three Russian Soyuz flights from French Guiana. India successfully launched five rockets, Japan conducted four launches, and Iran launched a satellite into orbit in February. Ukraine maintained its presence in the international launch market with two flights of its boosters from Russia.

Russia Continues to Struggle

Progress 60P on approach to ISS. (Ctedit: NASA TV)
Progress 60P on approach to ISS. (Ctedit: NASA TV)

Russia launched 26 rockets from its own territory and three Soyuz boosters from the European launch complex in South America. The launches included 16 Soyuz rocket variants, eight Protons, two Rokots,  one Soyuz-2.1v, one Dnepr and one Zenit 3SLBF.

Nine Russian launches supported the International Space Station (ISS), including four Soyuz crew transports and five Progress supply ships. In March, a Soyuz transported NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko to the space station for a mission set to last nearly a year.

One of the Progress cargo ships didn’t make it to ISS. In April, the Progress 59P tumbled out of control after being placed into orbit by a Soyuz rocket. Russian Mission Control was unable to stabilize the ship and salvage the mission.

More failures followed. In May, the Mexsat 1 satellite was lost in a Proton accident. A Kanopus ST satellite burned up in the atmosphere in December after it failed to separate from the upper stage of its Soyuz 2-1.v booster. A secondary satellite was successfully deployed into orbit.

The failures continued a long string of launch accidents dating back to 2009.

May 21, 2009Soyuz-2.1a/ FregatMeridian 2FailureSecond stage shut down early, Fregat upper stage ran out of fuel trying to compensate. Satellite left in useless orbit, declared a loss by Russian military.
Dec. 5, 2010Proton-M/ Blok-DM-3Uragan-M #739 Uragan-M #740
Uragan-M #741
FailureRocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.
Feb. 1, 2011Rokot/Briz-KMGeo-IK-2 No. 11FailureUpper stage malfunction.
Aug. 17, 2011Proton-M/ Briz-MEkspress AM4
FailureBriz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.
Aug. 24, 2011Soyuz-UProgress M-12FailureThird stage failure due to turbo-pump duct blockage.
Nov. 8, 2011Zenit-2SB/ FregatPhobos-Grunt
FailureZenit placed Phobos-Grunt in proper orbit. Spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit after on-board propulsion system failed to fire.
Dec. 23, 2011Soyuz-2.1b/ FregatMeridian 5FailureThird stage failure.
Aug. 6, 2012Proton-M/ Briz-MTelkom-3
Ekspress MD2
FailureBriz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.
Dec. 8, 2012Proton-M/ Briz-MYamal-402Partial FailureBriz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.
Jan. 15, 2013Rokot/Briz-KMKosmos 2482 Kosmos 2483 Kosmos 2484Partial FailureUpper stage failed near time of spacecraft separation; one satellite destroyed.
Feb. 1, 2013Zenit-3SL
Intelsat 27FailureFirst stage failure.
July 2, 2013Proton-M/DM-03Uragan-M #748 Uragan-M #749
Uragan-M #750
FailureFirst stage failure.
May 15, 2014Proton-M/Briz-MEkspress AM4RFailureProton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.
Aug. 14, 2014Soyuz-STB/ FregatGalileo FOC-1
Galileo FOC-2
Partial FailureSatellites placed in wrong orbits due to freezing of hydrazine in Fregat upper stage. Satellites made operational as part of Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation.
April 28, 2015Soyuz-2.1aProgress 59PFailureThird stage failure left Progress in uncontrollable tumble.
May 16, 2015Proton/Briz-MMexSat-1FailureThird stage failure anomaly.
December 5, 2015Soyuz-2.1v/ VolgaKanopus ST
KYuA 1
Partial FailurePrimary payload Kanopus ST remained attached to upper stage, later burned up in atmosphere. Secondary payload KYuA 1 deployed successfully.

Russia’s collaboration with Ukraine on the Dnepr launch vehicle program began to wind down in 2015. A single Dnepr rocket was launched in March; only a handful of flights remain on the manifest as Russia transitions to domestic boosters.

Another joint Russian-Ukrainian program might continue despite earlier reports of its demise. The December launch of a Zenit booster was widely reported to be the last by Russia of the Soviet-era rocket, which is largely produced in Ukraine.

However, an official at Sea Launch — which is owned by a subsidiary of Russia’s RSC Energia — said the company is looking to resume communications satellite launches using Zenit boosters. The company last conducted a launch in 2014.

The official said the successful Zenit launch in December had renewed interest in the booster. It is also true that Energia has been attempting without success to sell off Sea Launch over the past several years.

Success and Failure in America

Atlas V launches Cygnus to the International Space Station. (Credit: ULA)
Atlas V launches Cygnus to the International Space Station. (Credit: ULA)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX accounted for all but one of the American launches in 2015. Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket remained grounded throughout the year as a result of an October 2014 accident.

ULA conducted 12 successful flights, including nine Atlas Vs, two Delta IVs and one Delta II. On Oct. 2, an Atlas V flew a commercial mission, placing Mexico’s Morelos 3 communications satellite into orbit. It was ULA’s 100th successful mission since the company was formed.

In November, ULA returned Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighter to flight with a successful launch to the ISS. Orbital ATK plans to launch one more Cygnus on an Atlas V in 2016 before resuming flights aboard  Antares rocket later in the year. The revamped Antares will feature a new Russia-made engine in its first stage.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

SpaceX launched seven times with six successes. In February, a Falcon 9 booster sent the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft to Lagrange point 1, a gravity neutral point in space located a million miles from Earth. The spacecraft has returned spectacular images of Earth.

SpaceX successfully launched two Dragon resupply missions to the ISS. However, the third time was not a charm. In June, SpaceX suffered the first failure of its Falcon 9 rocket when the second stage exploded in flight, sending a Dragon plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The Falcon 9 was grounded for six months. In late December, an upgraded SpaceX made a spectacular return to flight when it lofted 11 Orcomm OG2 satellites into orbit and landed the Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX’s historic achievement came one month after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin successfully landed its smaller, suborbital New Shepard rocket in Texas. A reusable capsule designed to carry passengers landed separately under parachute.

Dragon abort test with SuperDraco engines.  (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon abort test with SuperDraco engines. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX continued to make progress toward launching astronauts to the space station aboard a crewed Dragon spacecraft. In May, it successfully conducted a successful pad abort test using a Dragon capsule.

The United States suffered a second launch failure in November when a Super Strypi rocket loaded with CubeSats tumbled out of control after liftoff from the U.S. Navy’s Barking Sands missile range in Hawaii. It was the inaugural flight of the new small satellite launch vehicle.

China Debuts New Boosters

China launched 19 times without failure. In September, the nation debuted two new small satellite launch vehicles, Long March 6 and Long March 11.

Long March 6 is a three-stage launcher capable of placing up to 1,080 kg (2,381 lb) into a sun-synchronous orbit of 700 km (435 miles). Its first-stage YF-100 engine will be used in the heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket, which is set to make its debut in 2016.

The Long March 11 is a solid-fuel rocket designed for the rapid deployment of microsats. It was  developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology with the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.

Europe Sets a Launch Record

An Ariane 5 rocket soars into orbit on Dec. 29, 2010. Credits: ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Photo Optique vidéo du CSG
An Ariane 5 rocket soars into orbit on Dec. 29, 2010. Credits: ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Photo Optique video du CSG

Europe conducted a record 12 launches from French Guiana, including six Ariane 5, three Vega and three Soyuz rockets. The Soyuz flights placed six Galileo navigation satellites in orbit, doubling the number of spacecraft in the European constellation to 12.

In February, a Vega rocket launched the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) vehicle on a suborbital flight to test re-entry technology.

Vega’s three successful launches in 2015 allowed officials to declare the program’s development phase over after six flights. Vega is now being marketed for commercial flights.

India, Japan Make Commercial Advances

GSLV Mk.II rocket lifts off with GSAT-6 satellite. (Credit: ISRO)
GSLV Mk.II rocket lifts off with GSAT-6 satellite. (Credit: ISRO)

India launched four PSLV rockets and one GSLV Mark 2 rocket. The nation made a breakthrough in the international launch market in 2015 by placing American CubeSats into orbit. The Office of the United States Trade Representative is considering whether to further loosen restrictions on the launch of American satellites on Indian rockets.

India officials were also confident enough after back-to-back successes of the GSLV Mark 2 using domestically produced cryogenic upper stages to declare the rocket’s torturous 14-year development phase complete. The rocket can now be marketed for commercial launches.

ISRO plans to increase the launch rate of its two boosters to about once per month while continuing to work on the more powerful GSLV Mark 3 rocket.

Japan also made a breakthrough in November when a H-2A rocket lofted the Telstar 12V commercial communications satellite into orbit. Officials are looking to market the booster commercially.

Another notable Japanese launch was the August flight of the HTV cargo ship to the ISS. The successful mission helped to replenish supplies that had begun to dwindle as a result of Cygnus, Progress and Dragon failures over the previous 10 months.