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.
Like this, apparently:
That’s the first stage of the Proton-M that launched Intelsat 31 to geosynchronous transfer orbit on June 9. It impacted in Kazakhstan, but considerably short of the expected impact zone, which is why it wasn’t found for a while. The Proton launch was technically successful, in that the payload was delivered to an adequate orbit, but that orbit was a bit slower than intended, and the Briz-M upper stage had to fire abnormally long to compensate for a shortened second-stage burn. Telemetry indicates that the second stage yaw control engine shut down shortly before the end of the programmed burn, causing the remaining engines to expend extra propellant to maintain the proper trajectory, which in turn caused the stage as a whole to burn out prematurely. But the fact that the first stage fell short suggests something went wrong in the first stage as well. Engineers have been looking at the recovered debris and the telemetry ever since the launch, and International Launch Services has announced that the launch of EchoStar 21, scheduled for August 29, will be delayed to sometime in October to give engineers more time to evaluate the anomaly and determine whether there is any risk with proceeding.
Proton has had something of a checkered history, and its image never fully recovered from a string of accidents a few years ago. It’s the cheapest launch vehicle in its weight class, which keeps it popular for geosynchronous commsats too large for Falcon 9 (which has nevertheless been eating into its market share). But its a hazardous vehicle, powered by toxic unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) and furiously corrosive nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4), a hypergolic combination (that is, the two chemicals will ignite spontaneously upon contact with one another). Watch also during launch videos for red smoke — that’s unused nitrogen tetroxide. This, as you might imagine, is part of why Kazakhstan isn’t entirely thrilled about hosting Baikonur Cosmodrome anymore — and why Russia is working to get away from Proton with heavier variants of the kerosene-fueled Angara. But in the meantime, this remains a very important part of the global rocket inventory, able to put massive commercial payloads into orbit at very competitive rates.
Proton is proving it’s back in business — it launched a Russian commsat into orbit, with spacecraft separation from the upper stage expected tomorrow, after the Block-DM upper stage has performed the final burn to insert it directly into geosynchronous orbit.
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:
Rocketry is *hard*. The rocket must generate tremendous energy, contain it, direct it, and not blow up. It must do this while screaming through the atmosphere so fast that even a tiny deviation in course could rip it to pieces. If it manages all that, it must also accelerate along very precise flight parameters to exactly the right speed at exactly the right altitude, or all of that will be for naught because the payload won’t be where it needs to be. And it must do this while bringing along everything it needs, leading to what rocket scientists lament as the tyranny of the rocket equation; the more you need to lift, the more propellant you need, which means you need even more propellant to lift the more propellant and also more tank to hold the propellant, which means you need even *more* propellant . . . . It’s almost a Xeno’s Paradox, but not quite, and rocketry lives on the “not quite”.
Based on that, it’s amazing it’s ever successful, really.
Yesterday, a Proton-M rocket carrying a European-built commsat for a Russian telecom made a spectacular ascent from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The first and second stages were beautiful, but for reasons not yet know, something went wrong during the third stage and the vehicle exploded. It had reached an altitude of 100 miles, and Russian officials say the debris should all have burned up. (But you never really know, and the current political climate in Russian aerospace means it would be unwise to express any cynicism about the launch. The blamefinding will already be underway, after all.) But the part of the launch visible from Baikonur was beautiful. Just look at that engine plume!
By contrast, today’s Delta IV launch of the latest element of the GPS constellation went off flawlessly. Delta IV currently enjoys 100% success except in its Heavy configuration, which has had one partial failure (premature engine cutoff on the test flight). This was an evening launch from Cape Canaveral Air Station, so there’s a lovely pink tinge to everything.
It’s always a good time to watch a rocket, right? 😉 This one blasted off from Baikonur last weekend with two geosynchronous commsats on board. These two will offer high definition TV programming to Siberian customers, who previously did not have access to such signals.
SpaceflightNow has a nice article about the payloads, with a picture of them during encapsulation in the assembly hall.