Back in 1992, the Russian government — newly shone of the republics that made up the old Soviet Union — had a problem. Or rather, lots and lots of problems. Some of them related to space.
Many of the components for the nation’s launch vehicles and space systems were made in the newly independent Ukraine. Its main spaceport was the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the new nation of Kazakhstan. Russia’s independence in space was at risk.
Khrunichev’s Proton rocket, which has been grounded since an in-flight anomaly last June, continues to experience serious problems with quality control, Russian media reported last week.
An investigation into quality control issues in the Russian space industry has discovered that nearly every engine currently stockpiled for use in Proton rockets is defective, the RIA Novosti news agency reported March 30, citing Igor Arbuzov, head of state rocket engine manufacturer Energomash.
71 engines, mostly used to power the second and third stages of the Proton rocket, require complete overhauls to remove defects. Arbuzov did not specify what was wrong with the engines….
“Most of the work will be done in 2017, but we understand that some portion will inevitably slip into 2018,” Arbuzov said. “Our main goal is to avoid disrupting the government space program’s launch schedule, or the schedules of the Defense Ministry and commercial customers.”
In January, Russian officials said they were investigating quality control problems at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant where engines for the Proton and Soyuz boosters are manufactured. Specifically, they believed a less heat resistant metal had been used in second- and third-stage engines.
Russian media reported last week that Progress Space Rocket Center, which manufacturers Soyuz boosters, had received four tested third-stage engines from the Voronezh Mechanical Factory.
Last June, a Proton rocket suffered a second-stage anomaly while launching the Intelsat 31 communications satellite. The third stage compensated for the under performance of the second stage, delivering the spacecraft to its intended orbit.
In December, a Progress freighter bound for the International Space Station was lost after a Soyuz rocket malfunctioned.
Proton and Soyuz are the mainstays of the Russian booster fleet. Due to the on-going problems, Russia has only launched only twice during the first quarter of a year during which officials have promised to launch at least 30 times.
Last year, Russia conducted 18 successful launches in 19 attempts. It was the country’s lowest launch figure in years, leaving the nation in third place behind the United States and China.
The country keeps trying to expand its use of the International Space Station, but the centerpiece of that effort — the Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM), named Nauka — has been delayed for a decade since its planned 2007 launch.
But, with launch planned for the end of this year or during the first half of 2018, more problems have been found.
In the past few weeks, engineers found the same contamination they’ve been fighting for years inside the module’s propellant tanks. The repair team tried to wash off these contaminants, but so far all efforts to cleanse the vessels have failed.
To make matters worse, these particular tanks, originally designed in the early 90s, are no longer in production and simply can’t be replaced. Because of these tanks’ unique design, fitted neatly onto the module like the chamber of a revolver, no modern tanks will work without damaging the spacecraft.
Nauka engineers did catch one lucky break. Roscosmos originally designed the vessel with a second set of shorter tanks. But to make room on the exterior of the converted module for the attachment of a European-built robotic arm and various scientific instruments, engineers removed the them. Now, these remaining (hopefully non-contaminated) tanks could be the only chance to get this long beleaguered spacecraft attached to the ISS.
Engineers have calculated that a mix of four of these short tanks and two long tanks will give the Nauka module just enough propellant to maneuver itself to the space station after its separation from the Proton M rocket and even have some extra fuel for another attempt to rendezvous with the station if needed.
Although a thin ray of hope remains that Russia will finally get its long delayed spacecraft aloft, no one can tell right now how long this new obstacle will delay the Nauka from finally docking with the ISS.
WASHINGTON, D.C, March 7, 2017 (ILS PR)—International Launch Services (ILS) announces the availability of a 5 meter diameter payload fairing (PLF) for use with both the Proton Breeze M and Proton Medium launch systems for commercial launch services beginning in first quarter of 2020. The 5 meter PLF addresses the increased volume of today’s larger satellites required to satisfy High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) broadband capacity demands, stacked satellite height requirements, and supports multiple satellites for efficient deployment of large LEO constellations.
A report by Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com says problems that have grounded Russia’s grounded workhorse Proton and Soyuz boosters have a common origin: “egregious quality control problems” at engine manufacturer Voronezh Mechanical Plant (VMZ).
The Kommersant newspaper reported that a recent firing test had revealed technical problems with RD-0210 and RD-0212 engines, which propel the second and third stage of the Proton rocket respectively. The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials. The report in the Kommersant echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.
RESTON, Va. (ILS PR) — International Launch Services (ILS) announces its first commercial shared launch using a Proton Breeze M with the EUTELSAT 5 West B satellite and MEV-1, the first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) developed by Orbital ATK. In addition, ILS is pleased to announce the first commercial contract incorporating the use of the newly announced Proton Medium launch vehicle. Both launches are for Eutelsat Communications, one of the world’s leading satellite operators, headquartered in Paris, France.
The shared launch on Proton Breeze M will carry the EUTELSAT 5 West B satellite, built on Orbital ATK’s GEOStar ™ satellite platform, with an Airbus Defence and Space-built payload stacked on top of Orbital ATK’s MEV-1 spacecraft for launch in the last quarter of 2018. The second mission is baselined with the Proton Medium launch vehicle with launch to be conducted in the 2019-2020 timeframe. Both missions will be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
RESTON, Va. (ILS PR) — International Launch Services (ILS) announces a product line extension of the Proton Breeze M commercial launch vehicle designed to expand the addressable GEO market for cost effective launch solutions in the small and medium satellite class range (3 to 5 metric tons). Designated as “Proton Variants,” these two additional vehicles will be optimized 2-stage versions of the time tested and flight proven Proton Breeze M launch system for exclusive commercial use by ILS.
Roscosmos is looking to reduce the size of Russian crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two, Izvestiyareports.
“We sent a letter to the participants of the ISS program – we want to hear their views on how we reduce the crew and when, there are nuances,” Sergei Krikalev, director of manned programs of the state corporation Roscosmos told Izvestia. “We are interested in the opinion of the Mission Control Center, the Institute of Biomedical Problems (RAS lead agency on the subject of Human Spaceflight — Izvestiya), our ISS partners. The intention to reduce the crew due to the fact that we have reduced the number of cargo ships sent to the ISS, as well as awareness of the need to increase the effectiveness of the program.”
The story says Roscosmos’ budget for space station operations was reduced as part of a severe cut in the space program’s funding. Russia’s national budget has been under severe pressure due to a reduction in oil revenues and Western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea.
Another factor is that the three cosmonauts aboard the station apparently don’t have enough to do. This problem is a result of the severe quality control problems that have bedeviled the Russian space program in recent years.
Russia had planned to expand its part of the station by adding the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) and two related modules to support it between 2013 and 2015. However, Khrunichev botched the job manufacturing the MLM. An inspection of the module after it was completed found debris in pipes and other flaws. Now, the launches are planned for 2018 and 2019.
“If you look at the original plan, we have assumed the launch multipurpose laboratory module for the International Space Station, and only then increase the crew,” Krikalev explained in an interview with Izvestiya. But MLM launch postponed several times, and the crew nevertheless increased. From my point of view, three people in the Russian segment, taking into account a set of equipment, which is now – it’s a bust.”
Reducing the crew size will free up seats on the Soyuz transport to carry space tourists, which would bring in funding for the hard-pressed space program. Russia has not been able to fly tourists since the American space shuttle retired in 2011, forcing the Soyuz to shoulder the entire burden of taking crews to the space station.
At a press conference earlier this week, NASA officials acknowledged they had received Russia’s proposal for the crew reduction.
“At this point it’s strictly a proposal they put on the table, and we’ll look at it,” said Kenny Todd, NASA’s space station operations integration manager. “As we do with all these kinds of things, we’ll trade it against whatever risk it might put into the program. First and foremost, the risk to our crew on board and the station itself. And then from there we start looking at the options and see what we can do as a partnership to try to either accommodate it, or help them realize why that’s a bad thing.”
RESTON, Va. (ILS PR) — International Launch Services (ILS) announces the first commercial Angara 1.2 launch contract was signed recently with Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) for the launch of the Korea Multi-Purpose Satellite (Arirang) 6 also known as the KOMPSAT-6 satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northwestern Russia around 2020.
Roscosmos said the cash infusion in particular would allow Moscow-based Khrunichev to repay its suppliers back debt of more than 20 billion Russian rubles, or about $300 million at current exchange rates. Roscosmos said Khrunichev’s total debt stood at 114 billion rubles as of late 2014.
In 2015, Roscosmos and Khrunichev were given new chief executives, both with non-space, commercial backgrounds. Roscosmos is now a state corporation as well as Russia’s space agency.
Roscosmos Director-General Igor Komarov is a former president of Russia’s Lada automobile manufacturer. Khrunichev Director-General Andrey V. Kalinovsky is a former president of the civil aircraft division of Russia’s Sukhoi.
U.S. and European government and industry officials who have negotiated with both men say they have brought a Western-style business approach to their companies.
“It’s like night and day,” said one European government official, referring specifically to Komarov compared to his predecessors.
The Russian roulette that is that nation’s launch industry nearly claimed Europe’s most ambitious planetary mission earlier this month.
That’s according to a report from Anatoly Zak in Popular Mechanics. Zak says there is evidence of an anomaly that sent pieces of the Proton launcher’s Briz-M upper stage into interplanetary space along with ESA’s ExoMars spacecraft.
RESTON, Va. (ILS PR) — International Launch Services (ILS) has appointed Ralph Bauer as Vice President and General Counsel. Bauer’s appointment follows the departure of Tom Tshudy, who served as ILS Senior Vice President and General Counsel since 2012 and ILS General Counsel since 1998.
Bauer, as ILS Vice President and General Counsel, will oversee the ILS legal, contracts and export control departments. Bauer joined ILS in October 2007 as ILS’ Partnership Manager, serving as the primary interface with Khrunichev on all economic and contractual matters.
RESTON, Va. (ILS PR) — International Launch Services (ILS) announces a multi-launch agreement with Eutelsat Communications of Paris, France, one of the world’s leading and most experienced operators of satellite communications. The missions will be launched within a seven year period from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Khrunichev and International Launch Services are slashing prices and offering other incentives on its Proton rocket amid a strong and failures and stiff competition from American rival SpaceX.
Taking advantage of the slide in the value of the ruble, officials have slashed Proton flights to $65 million, which is close to what SpaceX charges for a Falcon 9 launch. They are also offering schedule priority to commercial launches and more insight into and access to Khrunichev’s manufacturing and quality control practices.
HISPASAT of Madrid, Spain, recently announced a Proton launch order for a satellite that will fly in the first half of 2017. The company also booked the launch of another satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.
Proton’s long string of recent failures has depressed launch sales in recent years to the benefit of SpaceX and Arianespace. The table below shows failures over the past five years.
PROTON LAUNCH FAILURES, 2010 – 2015
Dec. 5, 2010
Uragan-M #739 Uragan-M #740 Uragan-M #741
Rocket failed to reach orbital velocity after upper stage overfilled with propellant.
Aug. 17, 2011
Briz-M upper stage suffered failure of attitude control.
Aug. 6, 2012
Telkom-3 Ekspress MD2
Briz-M upper stage failed 7 seconds into its third burn.
Dec. 8, 2012
Briz-M upper stage shut down 4 minutes earlier than planned on fourth burn. Spacecraft reached intended orbit under own power.
July 2, 2013
Uragan-M #748 Uragan-M #749 Uragan-M #750
First stage failure.
May 15, 2014
Proton third stage vernier engine failure due to turbo-pump leak.
May 16, 2015
Premature third stage steering engine turbo-pump shutdown.
The Proton rocket has failed completely six times in the past five years, destroying 11 satellites in the process. The rocket also suffered a partial failure in 2012 with the premature shutdown of its upper stage. That satellite was able to reach its intended orbit using on-board fuel.
RESTON, Va. (ILS PR) — The International Launch Services (ILS) Failure Review Oversight Board (FROB) concluded its work, concurring with the most probable cause and the associated corrective action plan which were identified by the Russian Interagency Commission (IAC) as a result of the May 16 Proton launch vehicle failure carrying the Centenario spacecraft.