Tag Archives: Proton

Proton-M places Amazonas-5 into orbit for Hispasat

A Proton-M made by Khrunichev and sold by International Launch Services placed the Amazonas-5 communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.   The flight originated at Baikonur Cosmodrome, which won’t have time to relax; they’re pressing towards the launch of Soyuz MS-06 with the next ISS crew late tomorrow/early Wednesday.

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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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What does a used Proton rocket look like?

Like this, apparently:

stage1_debris_1

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.

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Delta IV Heavy delayed due to weather; Proton-M successfully launches

The newest variant of the venerable Proton family, Proton-M, launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday, placing the Intelsat-31 commercial commsat into geosynchronous transfer orbit.  This was the first flight of the Phase IV Proton-M.  The launch was not perfectly ideal, as the second stage had one engine shut down prematurely (resulting in an impact short of the expected impact point), and the upper stage burned about half a minute longer than planned to compensate, and the initial parking orbit was a lower-energy orbit than originally intended.  The Briz-M appears to have compensated for this in its second and third firings, however, and the final orbit appears nominal.  Intelsat-31 will use its electric propulsion to finalize its orbit and then enter a commissioning period before it is ready to go into service.  It will provide television and data for customers in Latin America.

Then today, a Delta IV Heavy was due to blast off from KSC with a very heavy classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.  However, the notoriously fickle Florida weather got in the way and several hours into the launch window, the team was forced to scrub.  The launch has been reset for Saturday afternoon.

 

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ExoMars is on its way!

A Proton rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome this morning, carrying the ExoMars orbiter/lander pair onto the trans-Mars cruise trajectory.  This is the only Martian probe using the current Mars window (after the unfortunate cancellation of Mars InSight), and Europe’s first attempt at a Martian lander.  (Beagle 2 was an exclusively British effort, with ESA only providing a lift in the form of Mars Express, which remains active in Mars orbit today.)

ESA also released this spacecraft animation depicting launch and cruise, but not landing.  It’s got some pretty intense music as well.  😉  The two spacecraft comprising the ExoMars mission are the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli Lander.

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Eutelsat 9B launch aboard Proton-M

Last Friday, a Proton rocket placed the Eutelsat 9B spacecraft into geosynchronous transfer orbit.  In addition to providing broadband television support to customers in Europe, Eutelsat 9B also carries a unique new payload: EDRS-A.  EDRS is the European Data Relay System, a system analogous to the American TDRS constellation, but with a revolutionary new laser-based system for transferring data along the chain.  Two more spacecraft are scheduled this year for EDRS, including one which will be dedicated to data relay functions rather than piggy-backing on a commercial commsat.  The first customers for the EDRS will the two Sentinel satellites, but the consortium operating EDRS hopes to get many more government and commercial customers.

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