Tag Archives: Khrunichev

Proton has returned to flight!

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.

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Proton grounded due to serious safety concerns, and there’s a connection to the Progress accident

Proton has a fairly checkered history, going in fits and starts from the UR-500 program in the 1960s where it competed directly with the N-1 for funding, to the workhorse commercial heavy-lift rocket sold in the 21st Century by International Launch Alliance, a cooperative venture of RSC Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin.  But it has had a number of very high profile failures, and it faces increasing frustration from Kazakhstan, the country that hosts its sole launch site, Baikonur Cosmodrome, because of the highly toxic propellants it relies upon — unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4).

It hasn’t had an accident since the loss of Mexsat-1 in 2015, which has led many to wonder why the launch of EchoStar 21 has been delayed so many times, each time due to unspecified technical issues.  Originally slated to fly June 25 of last year, it’s been delayed to August 29, October 10, November 23, December 22, December 28, and January 31.  And now Proton has been grounded another three and a half months by Roscosmos.  Why?

Well, some information has come out now.  Officials had test fired engines for the second and third stages and something went wrong during the test.  This led to an investigation of the engine manufacturer, Voronezh Mechanical Plant (VMZ), which as it happens, is also the manufacturer of the Soyuz upper stage engines that were implicated in the loss of Progress MS-04 last month. The investigation of that mishap concluded that foreign object debris within the engines had caused the accident, although it could not determine the source of the FOD.  Now, with the same engine manufacturer in the crosshairs for Proton engine problems, it seems likely that’s where the real problem lies.

And it’s ugly.  In an unsettling parallel to the findings after the 2015 launch failure (which found substandard materials being used in turbopump shafts), they’ve found that unauthorized substitutions were made in the heat-resistant alloys used inside the engine — replacing precious elements with cheaper alternative — with paperwork falsified to cover this up, and presumably someone pocketing the savings.  Roscosmos has ordered a complete quality control audit of VMZ, to be conducted by their archrival NPO Energomash (maker of the highly successful RD-170 engine family, a derivative of which has powered the Atlas V to a flawless operational record).  Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited VMZ and promised funding to modernize VMZ’s facilities, but also threatened severe punishments for those found to have falsified documentation and violated process.  It’s a typically Russian response, more stick than carrot, but given that the main problems have been systemic corruption and brain drain to other, less volatile industries (and, indeed, other countries), it’s unclear whether it can save Russia’s flagging space industry.  As India, China, and Japan ramp up their commercial space efforts alongside old industry leaders in Europe and the United States as well as nascent commercial providers such as SpaceX, Russia faces serious challenges, with major new development now decades behind schedule as they largely continue to rely on 1960s designs and foreign investment to keep their manufacturers afloat.  Already, they are scaling back their ISS involvement, and although this has been spun as work toward a new Russian space station, it’s questionable whether that will actually materialize.  The MLM, their last ISS module, is now nearly a generation behind schedule.  The Anagara rocket has flown twice, after having been promised since the 1990s, and the third Angara has been quietly rejected due to manufacturing defects.  The Baikal reusable flyback booster for Angara, first shown at the Paris Air Show in the late 90s, has never gone beyond the paper-and-marketing-model stage.  Russia’s new cosmodrome, Vostochny, meant to reduce reliance on Baikonur in the face of increasing opposition in Kazakhstan, has hosted just one launch so far, and was only completed very late and with the personal intervention of Vladimir Putin after the revelation of extensive embezzlement that had crippled construction work.
I’d like to be optimistic about Russian spaceflight; there is a long and rich history there, which includes some really sterling examples of success in defiance of very long odds, and some really brilliant innovation.  But it has always been hampered by political interference that alternates between support and obstruction, making it very difficult for any long-term efforts to be successful, and most of the expertise of their glory days has long since retired, leaving few to mentor the next generation of engineers.  Serious investment tends to come only very late, when programs are so severely behind the eight ball that they are on the verge of total disaster, and the punitive response to problems does not help the widespread culture of corruption and concealment.Here’s hoping they can get this turned around.  Proton is a major player in the geosynchronous commsat launch market, and it has a significant backlog right now.

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Russian rocket mishaps solved?

The investigation went deeper than previous ones, since the previous hadn’t actually resulted in any improvement, and what they found was surprising to me.  It wasn’t just quality control issues in manufacturing, as had previously been suspected; there are honest-to-gosh design defects in both the Briz-M upper stage for the Proton, and the upper stage of the Soyuz 2-1a.

The Soyuz 2-1a is a new model of the venerable R-7 family.  Being quite new, it’s perhaps unsurprising there’s a problem, but what’s interesting is that the design flaw only shows up with the Progress as payload.  (Presumably, it could also happen with Soyuz, which shares its service module entirely with Progress.)  This explains why it never had a problem on any of its other flights, but the defect must be fixed before it can carry Soyuz or Progress into orbit.

The Proton defect is a bit more worrisome, because it’s been in the system for decades without anyone noticing — despite multiple failures with similar characteristics and multiple investigations.  A small vernier engine used for steering the vehicle during third stage flight has a design defect which makes it extremely easy to unbalance.  And when it becomes unbalanced, it experiences increasingly violent vibrations until it undergoes what rocket scientists dryly refer to as an “unscheduled disassembly”.  The good news is that existing engines can be reworked with a different rotor shaft in their turbopumps to prevent the problem happening again.  Also, it’s back to flight now, having been cleared for all non-Progress/Soyuz flights, placing a military satellite (possibly a Kobalt or Persona spy satellite) into orbit:

So, good on you, Russia, for finding these defects!  Hopefully the design change and rework will do the trick, and keep Proton flying safely.  Alternately, I’d be happy with them replacing it; Proton’s one of the last flying launch vehicles to use hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide in the first stage.  Nasty stuff to release into the atmosphere.

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More bad news for Russian Spaceflight: Proton-M explodes (UPDATE)

UPDATE: While the investigation is only beginning, at present it appears that a fault in steering engines may have been to blame.  This would a four-nozzle vernier engine.  During third stage flight, a rocket is going very fast — approaching orbital velocity — and only slight deviations from its trajectory could put enormous aerodynamic strain on the vehicle.  Meanwhile, MexSat-1’s insurance policy is paying for the entire cost of the spacecraft.  Lastly, I have a correction — I wrote that the third MexSat would be launching aboard Ariane V, but I had the wrong A*V vehicle.  The first one went up on Ariane V, but the third (Morelos 2) will be going up on Atlas V.

Proton-M was scheduled to launch MexSat-1 “Centenario”, a Mexican geosynchronous commsat, from Baikonur Cosmodrome today.  The initial launch looked fine, but then something went catastrophically wrong during operation of the Briz-M third stage.  Proton-M has had a particularly bad wrong.  Out of 43 launch attempts in the past five years, six have been catastrophic failures, and two ended in useless orbits.  The payload and upper stage are believed to have reentered and impacted in the Chita region of Russia, near Mongolia, although signs suggest it broke up very high and so pieces may be relatively small.  This flight was managed by International Launch Services, a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and RSC Khrunichev, which sells Proton and Atlas V commercially.

“Centenario” is one of a set of three satellites purchased by Mexico from Boeing and built in the United States.  The first one launched on Ariane V and has gone into service, while the third is scheduled to also fly on Ariane V.

Everything looks okay in this video, but it likely perished not long after:

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Rockot places three more Gonets-M satellites into orbit (plus one other payload)

Last Tuesday, Russia’s Rockot launcher out of Plestesk Cosmodrome placed three more Gonets-M telecommunications satellites into orbit.  Based on the military Strela commsat platform but operated privately, the Gonets constellation relays data between remote users in regions of the world ill-served by traditional geosynchronous satellites — i.e. the Arctic regions that comprise so much of the Russian Federation.

The Rockot launcher is a derivative of the SS-19 ICBM intended for civilian use and sold on the international commercial launch market.  The name is sort of a multilingual pun — in English, of course it sounds like “rocket”, but in Russian it means “rumble”.  It is operated by Eurockot Launch Services, which is jointly owned and operated by EADS Astrium and Khrunichev State Research Center; EADS has the controlling interest, while Khrunichev manufactures the vehicle.  This was Rockot’s 23rd flight.  The system as a whole has had two failures and one partial success.

There was reportedly also a fourth satellite riding on Rockot, and Russia is being very tight-lipped about it.  All we know is that it’s military.  Given the payload limits on Rockot with three other payloads already on board, it can’t be an optical spy satellite.  My guess is a military technology demonstrator.

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Two successful rocket launches: Atlas V and Proton!

Well, the Geminids were a bust for me.  Totally overcast here, and we drove out to South Dakota to visit the in-laws and guess what?  Totally overcast there.  In fact, it was pea-soup fog for a lot of the drive back.  But hey, there’s always something else exciting in space.  😉  First off, on Friday night the weather finally cooperated in California and the most powerful Atlas to fly from Vandenberg AFB launched with its classified payload.  It’s the second-heaviest Atlas V configuration, the 541.  The 541 has flown twice from Cape Canaveral, but this is its first flight from the West Coast.  The previous flights boosted NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2001, and another NRO payload earlier this year.  The only heavier Atlas is the 551, which has only flown once, launching New Horizons directly into a solar escape trajectory from Cape Canaveral in 2006.  (New Horizons will reach its primary target, Pluto, next year.)  Here’s last Friday’s launch:

And just for fun, compare it to this one: New Horizons peeling out of Florida faster than any other rocket:

Last Fridays’ Atlas is still climbing rather fast for what is likely a fairly hefty payload; satellite spotting enthusiasts suspect it to be a Trumpet electronic signals intelligence spacecraft intended for a highly elliptical Molniya-style orbit.  But that’s really just speculation; it’s tough to really know.

Meanwhile, early this morning Russia’s Proton rocket completed its historic 400th launch, placing the Yamal 401 commercial commsat in orbit for Gazprom Space Systems from Baikonur Cosmodrome, bound for geosynchronous orbit.  It should be there by now, and will enter the commissioning phase of its mission.  After a series of troubles in recent years, this is a very encouraging and positive way to round out the year for the vehicle and International Launch Services, a cooperative venture between rocket manufacturer Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin, which sells both Proton and Atlas on the international market.

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