The Proton rocket, heavy-lift workhorse of the Russian fleet, has finally returned to flight. The mission was a commercial one, sold through International Launch Services (a joint venture of RSC Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin), and carried the Echostar 21 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The launch was fully successful, which I’m sure was a bit of a relief after the year-long grounding extended by a frustrating series of delays: first it was grounded to study concerns with the Briz-M upper stage, and then it was grounded further when contamination found in the engines revealed a much larger pattern of fraud within the engine manufacturer, Voronezh Mechanical Plant. Fallout from that included the humiliating order to turn Voronezh management over to their rival, NPO Energomash, which has been tasked with cleaning up the organization so that this does not happen again.
It’s good to see the old workhorse back in operation again. There are four more Proton flights scheduled for 2017, as it works to clear out the backlog.
The latest crewed mission to the ISS has arrived: Soyuz MS-04, with Soyuz commander (and future Expedition 52 commander) Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Jack Fisher. The two men share an interesting interagency history — Yurchikhin was one of the first cosmonauts to fly aboard Shuttle, and Fisher is one of the first (possibly *the* first, I’m not sure) American astronaut to serve as Soyuz flight engineer, a situation necessitated by Roscosmos’ decision to reduce their crew size in an effort to save money. The empty third seat was filled with supplies, and when they return, they will be joined by current Expedition 51 commander Peggy Whitson, whose mission has been extended a few months.
It was a beautiful liftoff from the plains of Kazakhstan:
As per current protocol, they made a rapid ascent profile, docking on the fourth orbit:
This brings Station up to a crew of five.
The cargo trips to the ISS continue, with the CRS-10 Dragon arriving a day late (after waving off the first rendezvous due to faulty GPS data) and Progress MS-05 blasting off and returning the Progress capsule to flight after the unfortunate launch vehicle failure that destroyed the last one. Progress Ms-05 also capped off the venerable Soyuz-U, as it was the final flight of that rocket variant.
Dragon has been berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node, and Progress MS-05 is en route to dock with the nadir port of the Pirs compartment.
The final Soyuz-U launch:
And a timelapse of the Dragon berthing:
Just days after the reentry of the latest Cygnus cargo vehicle, Russia has lost a Progress spacecraft. Something went wrong during the third stage of the flight, and the vehicle broke up and reentered over the Tuva Republic of eastern Russia, just north of Mongolia. Most of the vehicle is believed to have burned up in the upper atmosphere. It will take time to determine exactly what happened, but initial indications suggest a premature separation of spacecraft and launch vehicle.
Progress was carrying 710 kg of propellant for Zvezda, 420 kg of water, 52 kg of oxygen, 315 kg of food, 115 kg of miscellaneous gear including medical and hygiene supplies, 83 kg of gear for the Russian segment’s toilet system, 67 kg of air purification hardware, an Orlan suit, cables, cameras, science experiements, and 87 kg of supplies for NASA (including equipment for the environmental control and water recycling systems). All of that of course has now been lost.
Consumables on the station are within comfortable margins at present. The next scheduled cargo flight is a Japanese HTV on Dec 9.
Today, two rockets lifted off. First, from Kourou in French Guiana, an Ariane V launched the next five elements of the Galileo satellite navigation constellation:
Then, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Soyuz MS-03 blasted off. The crew are Russian Soyuz commander Oleg Novitskiy, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson (who, with this launch, has broken the record for oldest female astronaut previously held by Barbara Morgan), and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of ESA.
Here are some pretty rocket videos to enjoy. 😉 First, from last week, the Atlas V launch of the WorldView 4 commercial imaging satellite, from Vandenberg AFB:
And then, in preparation for launch this week, here’s the Soyuz MS-03 rocket stack rollout at Baikonur Cosmodrome:
First off, the happy news! Soyuz MS-02 launched successfully from Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday. Aboard were Sergey Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Shane Kimbrough. The mission was delayed a month due to technical issues with the spacecraft, but the repaired vehicle is performing well. They will arrive at the ISS tomorrow; the longer two-day approach was selected to allow more opportunity to test the new Soyuz MS series.
And now the less happy news: ESA has analyzed the data from the Schiaparelli lander, and although they still do not know what happened exactly, they have a better picture and it isn’t good. The only data they have comes from monitoring of its telemetry during descent. The entry sequence was nominal through atmospheric entry and parachute deploy, but then events started to deviate. The signal indicating parachute and backshell jettison came early, and then the engines ignited and the descent radar was switched on. However, they only appear to have burned for 3-4 seconds, and it isn’t clear whether all nine engines fired, nor what altitude the probe was actually at. They were expecting the engines to fire for about 30 seconds. At this point, they do not know whether backshell jettison was too high, or whether something caused a false indication of landing leading to premature engine cutoff (which is what killed Mars Polar Lander), or whether it actually came in much lower than expected, leading to it hitting the ground just a few second after ignition. They actually got about 600 MB of data during the descent, so they have a lot more data to look at. But although ESA hasn’t completely given up, it really looks like the lander is dead. Hopefully the second lander, in two years, will have better fortune; Mars is difficult, extremely difficult, but it rewards persistence.