Loss of Weather Satellite Adds to Russia’s Near Decade of Launch Failures

Another fine day for Russia’s space program. A Proton crashes with three GLONASS satellites in July 2013. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For the second year in a row, Russia came tantalizingly close to breaking a string of launch failures extending back nearly a decade.

In three days, the nation’s space program would have gone 12 months without botching a launch. Thirty days after that, an entire calendar year would have passed without a full or partial launch failure. Last year, Russia came within four days and 30 days of those marks, respectively.

But, it was not to be. The apparent failure of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket to orbit the Meteor-M 2-1 weather satellite and 18 CubeSats on Tuesday added to a string of botched launches extending back to May 2009. During that period, the Russians have experienced 15 failures and four partial failures that have seriously damaged the nation’s once sterling reputation as a reliable launch provider.

The table below shows Russia’s tale of woe.

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 was 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 parking 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 due to sensor being installed upside down. Rocket arched over after launch and crashed in a fireball near launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome.
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.
December 1, 2016Soyuz UProgress MS-04FailureThird stage failure. Progress supply ship burned up in atmosphere.
November 28, 2017Soyuz 2-1bMeteor-M 2-1, 18 CubeSatsFailureSuspected Fregat upper stage failure.

A leading theory for this latest failure — and it’s still early yet — is the booster’s Fregat upper stage fired in the wrong direction, sending it and its 19 satellites plunging into the Atlantic Ocean instead of soaring into a higher orbit.

Russia has three more Soyuz launches planned for next month. On Dec. 2, a Soyuz-2.1b rocket is set to launch a military satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. This flight will be followed by the launch a new three-member crew to the International Space Station on Dec. 17. Neither Soyuz rocket appears to use the Fregat upper stage.

However, there are two other launches planned for December that do use that stage. On Dec. 22, a Soyuz is set to launch the Kanopus-V 3 and V4 Earth observation satellites from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Four days later, a Zenit 3F booster is scheduled to loft the AngoSat communication satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Russia’s booster problems have caused it to lost is annual lead in launches last year, falling to third behind the United States and China. A similar result is expected this year. Russia has launched 16 times with one failure in 2017, which places it 11 behind the United States (27 with no failures) and two ahead of China (14 with one failure and one partial failure).

A key reason is that manufacturing problems have left Russia’s workhorse Soyuz and Proton boosters grounded for extended periods of time. Proton was grounded for a year after a second-stage anomaly during a June 2016 launch. The Briz-M upper stage compensated for the under performance, placing the communications satellite in its intended orbit.

As Russia’s problems have continued, the nation has been losing out on launch contracts to SpaceX and its low-cost Falcon 9 booster.