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.

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USA, China Led World in Launches in 2016

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41. (Credit: ULA)
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41. (Credit: ULA)

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The United States and China led the world in orbital launch attempts in 2016 with 22 apiece. The combined 44 launches made up more than half of the 85 flights conducted around the world.

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Another Year, Another Russian Launch Failure

The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)
The Progress 65 spacecraft is pictured at its launch pad Nov. 29 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: Roscosmos)

They came so close this time.

In another four days, the Russians would have gone a full year without losing a spacecraft in a launch mishap. That’s something that hasn’t happened since 2009-10. In another 30 days, they would have gone an entire calendar year without a launch failure.

The loss of the Progress 65 cargo ship during its launch aboard a Soyuz-U rocket today marks the latest in a string of failures stretching back more than seven years. Since May 2009, Russia has suffered 13 launch failures and four partial failures involving its stable of satellite boosters. (See table below)

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China Aims to Land Rover on Mars

Mars_Soil
China plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021 by sending an orbiter and rover to Mars, officials said last week.

“Such a big plan to achieve orbiting, landing and the deployment of a rover in one mission will make history,” said Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of the mission. “Only by completing this Mars probe mission can China say it has embarked on the exploration of deep space in the true sense.”

The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) is developing the orbiter and rover, which will be launched by the Long March-5 rocket. The new booster will make its inaugural flight later this year.

It will be China’s second attempt to send a mission to Mars. The Chinese Yinghuo-1 orbiter was a sub-satellite aboard Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission launched in November 2011. However, the mission never left Earth orbit due to a rocket engine failure.

Officials said pressure mounted on China to launch a Mars mission after rival India successfully placed a spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet in 2014.

Sources

China Unveils Ambitious Plans to Explore the Universe: http://english.cri.cn/12394/2016/04/25/2702s925438.htm

China Headlines: China hopes to reach Mars in 2021: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/22/c_135304596.htm

The sky is not the limit: China’s Mars plan: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/22/c_135304660.htm

Years of Failures Haunt Russian Space Program

Holy shi'ski! The rocket...it go KABOOMSKI! (Credit: Tsenki TV)
Proton rocket falls to Earth at Baikonur in July 2013. (Credit: Tsenki TV)

Sixteen botched launches in six years.

That’s the Russian space program’s sad record since May 2009. The failure of a Proton rocket earlier today with the loss of a Mexican communications satellite was yet another sign of the prolonged crisis affecting Russia’s once powerful space program.

The crash came less than three weeks after a botched launch left a Progress supply freighter spinning end over end like an extra point before it burned up in Earth atmosphere. There was also news today that another Progress cargo ship attached to the International Space Station failed to fire its engine as planned to boost the station’s orbit.

The list of Russian launch accidents over the last six years includes:

  • 13 complete failures resulting in the loss of all payloads;
  • 3 partial failures that left spacecraft in the wrong orbits;
  • complete loss of 20 spacecraft;
  • 6 Russian GLONASS navigation satellites destroyed; and,
  • an ambitious Mars mission left stranded in Earth orbit.

The table below shows the full extent of the damage.

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Russians Intent on Trying to Explore Phobos Again

Phobos moon
Martian moon Phobos

If at first (second, third and fourth) you don’t succeed, the fifth time’s the charm.

That’s at least what Russia’s Space Research Institute is hoping. The institute is once again planning an ambitious mission to the Martian satellite Phobos despite repeated setbacks in exploring the potato-shaped moon over the past 25 years that are part of a half century of failure at the Red Planet.

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Video: Phobos-Grunt Team Threatened with Jail, Treason Charges

This is one seriously crazy ass message from sort sort of deeply dystopian society. If this is actually a serious message, then the Russian space program is doomed. You can’t go around threatening your engineers and scientists like this and expect them to do good work.

Russia Blames Radiation for Loss of Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft

Phobos-Grunt in preparation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Roscosmos says that radiation in low Earth orbit fried Phobos-Grunt’s computer, an explanation that not everyone is buying:

“The most likely reason, in the opinion of the commission, was the local impact of heavily charged space particles that led to a failure in the memory of the main onboard computer in the second stage of flight,” [Roscosmos Head Vladimir] Popovkin told Russian news agencies in Voronezh, a town 450 km (280 miles) south of Moscow.

A burst of space radiation caused the onboard computers to reboot and go into standby mode, he said.

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Russian Deputy PM Takes Personal Control of Phobos-Grunt Inquiry, Seeks “Culprits”

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. (Credit: A. Savin)

ITAR-TASS reports that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has taken personal control of the investigation into the failure of Phobos-Grunt, the ambitious planetary mission to fell into the South Pacific on Sunday instead of flying to Mars.

“I expect from the Federal Space Agency a promised report on the reasons for the Phobos-Grunt crash, the names of culprits and an overview on the prospects of development of the space industry through 2030,” Rogozin said.

Culprits, huh? This could get really ugly. Hopefully, the hard-line leader will be able to distinguish between acts of corruption that might have impacted the project and honest mistakes made in a decrepit system that has been rotted to the core by decades of underfunding, ineptitude and neglect.

Russia needs to rebuild its planetary program, attract a new generation of engineers to its space program, and develop missions more suited to actual abilities. They won’t be able to do that if engineers are looking at jail time for their mistakes. And launching a spacecraft as complicated Phobos-Grunt when you haven’t flown a successful planetary mission in 27 years is not the way to get back into the game.

Phobos-Grunt Sleeps With the Fishes

Phobos-Grunt in orbit around the Earth. (Credit: Ralph Vandeberg -- used by permission)

The derelict Phobos-Grunt spacecraft has returned to Earth in a crash more spectacular than Tim Tebow’s flame-out in New England last night. Preliminary reports have the spacecraft re-entering in the South Pacific off the coast of Chile. However, the Twitterosphere is abuzz with alternate reports of it coming down over Brazil. A definite answer is due within the next day. There have been no reports of injuries.

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Roscosmos Chief: Western Power Might Be Wrecking Our Spacecraft

Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Good God. It’s come to this. The head of the Russian space program is now trafficking in conspiracy theories:

Doomed Martian probe Phobos-Grunt, which was due to fulfill a Russian mission on one of the Red Planet’s moons, might have been a target of external influence. The probe failed while flying over the western hemisphere, outside of Russia’s control.

In an interview to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, said that intended influence on the probe cannot be completely excluded.

”I do not want to blame anyone, but these days there are very powerful means to influence space vehicles,” he told the newspaper, adding that it is still unclear why the probe’s engine failed to start in the first place….

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Russia Downplays Danger as Phobos-Grunt Nears Re-entry

Phobos-Grunt in orbit around the Earth. (Credit: Ralph Vandeberg -- used by permission)

The latest update from Roscosmos on its failed Mars mission’s arrival back at the home office:

“The Earth’s surface can reach the remains of the spacecraft from the heat-resistant materials in the amount of the order of 20-30 pieces and total weight not exceeding 200 kg. The components of the fuel burn of the spacecraft in the dense atmosphere of the Earth at an altitude of approximately 100 kilometers.

“Radioisotope source (cobalt-57), set in one of the scientific instruments, spacecraft – Mossbauer spectrometer has a mass not exceeding 10 micrograms, a small half-life and will not cause dangerous contamination.

“Many years of international statistics shows that when leaving the orbit, spacecraft are almost always completely burned in the dense atmosphere, and their residual fragments, as a rule, do no harm.”

Oh, re-entry is likely to occur between Jan. 10 and 21, probably the 15th give or take a day. And it will come down somewhere between 51.4 degrees south and 51.4 degrees north. I’m not an expert in such things, but that sounds like most anywhere.

I’ve reproduced the full press release below.

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It’s Dead, Jim! Roscosmos Begins Investigation of Phobos-Grunt Failure, Preps for Reentry

Phobos-Grunt in orbit around the Earth. (Credit: Ralph Vandeberg -- used by permission)

It is said that success has 100 fathers and that failure is an orphan. And so it is with Phobos-Grunt, whose failure has elicited weeks of silence from the Russian space agency Roscomos. As a desperate effort was made to contact and save the Mars mission, the world had to rely on updates from the European Space Agency.

That silence was finally broken last week. On Thursday, there was a widely distributed “Dear Colleagues” letter from Lev Zelenyi, director of the Space Research Institute (IKI), the organization that oversaw the development of Phobos-Grunt. The letter declared  Phobos-Grunt to be a failure and thanked those who tried to save it.

On Saturday, Roscosmos announced the establishment of a commission to investigate the failure and a Defense Ministry task force to prepare for the uncontrolled re-entry of the satellite, which contains 7.5 tons of toxic fuel. The investigative commission with be headed by Yuri Koptev, who is chairman of the Scientific and Technical Council of State Corporation Russian Technologies.  He formally headed up the Russian space agency when it was named Rosaviakosmos.

Zelenyi’s letter is reproduced after the break.

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ESA: No Additional Contact With Phobos-Grunt

A Russian poster for Phobos-Grunt. (Credit: Roscosmos)

UPDATE – 25 NOVEMBER 2011 — After establishing contact with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars mission earlier this week, ESA’s tracking station in Australia received no signal from the spacecraft last night. ESA engineers are investigating the cause in close collaboration with Russian mission controllers.

Despite listening intently during four scheduled communication passes during the night of 24–25 November, ESA’s 15 m-diameter dish antenna at Perth, Australia, did not receive any signals.

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Report: Phobos-Grunt Launch Window for Mars Closes Today

Phobos-Grunt in preparation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

RIA Novosti reports on some grim news for the Russian space exploration program:

The launch window to send Russia’s Phobos-Grunt unmanned spacecraft to a Mars moon will close on Monday, an airspace source told RIA Novosti.

“The spacecraft has already unfolded its solar panels and is in the so-called “barbeque mode,” the source said, speaking about the passive thermal control mode during which the spacecraft rotates slowly around its roll axis to prevent one side from continuous solar exposure and overheating.

“So, the ballistic window for Phobos-Grunt’s flight to Mars is limited by November 21,” he said….

Igor Lisov, editor of the industry magazine Cosmonautics News, said if contact with the spacecraft is established after the launch window’s closure, it could still be sent to the Moon or even to an asteroid.

However, he said there were almost zero chances to revive the station.

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