Russian Rocket Mishap: The Gang That Can’t Launch Straight?

Soyuz rocket blasts off from Vostochny on Nov. 28, 2017. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Anatoly Zak has some intel on what investigators think might have caused the failure of a Soyuz launch on Tuesday. And it is just unfraking believable if it’s true.

Although the information is still preliminary, it is increasingly clear that all the hardware aboard the Fregat upper stage performed as planned. But, almost unbelievably, the flight control system on the Fregat did not have the correct settings for the mission originating from the new launch site in Vostochny, as apposed to routine launches from Baikonur and Plesetsk.

As a result, as soon as Fregat and its cargo separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle, its flight control system began commanding a change of orientation of the stack to compensate for what the computer had perceived as a deviation from the correct attitude, which was considerable. As a result, when the Fregat began its first preprogrammed main engine firing, the vehicle was apparently still changing its attitude, which led to a maneuvering in a wrong direction.

Again, it must be stressed: it’s still early in the investigation, so there might be a less unbelievable explanation for this accident, which destroyed a Russian weather satellite and 18 smaller secondary payloads.

In the string of Russian launch failures dating back to 2009, there have been some real forehead slapping mistakes made. Like the time the Proton rocket arched back toward the spaceport immediately after launch because orientation sensors had been installed upside down. And when an upper stage was filled with too much fuel, resulting in three satellites being launched into the Pacific instead of Earth orbit. This one, if true, might be even worse than those two mistakes.

Roscosmos has appointed a commission to investigate the accident headed by Oleg Skorobogatov, deputy general director of FSUE TsNIIMash. The deputy head of the commission is Alexander Medvedev, who is deputy general director of FSUE TsNIIMash. The commission plans to wrap up its work by Dec. 15.

Russia has four more launches set for the rest of the year, two of which use the Fregat upper stage. It’s not clear how the failure will affect the schedule.