Tag Archives: Roscosmos

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Rocket failure updates: Soyuz-U and Falcon 9

First off, the good news!  SpaceX is now confident enough in their procedural fixes for Falcon 9 that they have announced their next launch date: December 16early January, from Vandenberg AFB.  Payload would be a set of ten next-generation Iridium satellites.  [Edited per SpaceX news release 12/7.  Original date was reported on SpaceflightNow, but I’m not sure where they got it, since it doesn’t appear anywhere on SpaceX’s website.]

Second, Roscosmos has convened a failure investigation board and begun combing through the data from the failure of Soyuz-U with Progress MS-04.  This was to have been the next-to-last flight of the Soyuz-U.  Everything appears to have been nominal through the first and second stages of flight, but during the third stage, something went badly wrong.  One account has a premature engine shutdown command issued due to a deviation from flight path so severe the third stage’s gyro stabilization system stalled, and then Progress breaking away due to the strain.  Another account has the flight proceeding normally until for some unexplained reason the spacecraft separated.  It will take time to sift through the data and come to an answer; at present in Russian media, it seems the respective manufacturers of the rocket and the spacecraft are attempting to point fingers at one another.

Meanwhile, the impact region has been located.  Russian authorities are combing the Tuva region for debris, and one piece appears to have been found by residents of Tos-Tevek, possibly a propellant tank (as Progress carries not just its own propellant but also supplies for ISS propulsion system).

tank_1

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Progress MS-04 lost on takeoff

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Atlas V launches with WorldView 4, and Soyuz MS-03 rolls to the pad

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:

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

The ISS in Ultra HD

NASA released this amazing fly-through video of the ISS, taken in Ultra HD with a fisheye lens and set to lovely, relaxing, spacey orchestral music.  If you’re stressed out after yesterday’s events and want to pretend you’re up there, turn out all the lights, put on headphones, put this on full screen, and lean back….

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

Soyuz MS-01 returns after four months in space

The international crew of Soyuz MS-01 have returned to Earth!  Anatoly Ivanishin, Takuya Onishi, and Kate Rubins landed in Kazakhstan today.  The lighting was phenomenal, and this is I think the clearest image I’ve ever seen of a Soyuz landing.  You can see all the parachute lines and everything.

soyuz-ms-01-landing

And the video is really good too.  Watch right at the very beginning as you see puffs from the pyrotechnics firing to jettison the heat shield:

Leave a comment

Filed under Space

ISS arrivals; Soyuz MS-02 and Cygnus “SS Alan Poindexter”

The ISS is a busy place!  They’ve had two arrivals in the past few days.  First off, Soyuz MS-02 arrived following a two-day chase.  It docked to the Poisk module located at the zenith port of Zvezda’s forward compartment.  This lovely time-lapse has the perfect musical score to go along:

And now, the Cygnus OA-5 mission, with the spacecraft “SS Alan Poindexter”, has arrived at the ISS.  Crews on board captured the spacecraft with the SSRMS; ground controllers later took over and completed the berthing remotely while the crew slept, mating the spacecraft to the nadir port of the Unity node of the ISS.

Orbital ATK names each of their cargo vehicles, and the tradition they’ve chosen is to name each for a deceased astronaut.  Alan Poindexter, this spacecraft’s namesake, joined the astronaut corps in 1998, later flying on two missions, STS-122 and STS-131.  The latter was the longest mission for the Space Shuttle Discovery, at 15 days 2 hours, 47 min, 11 seconds.  Poindexter retired from NASA in 2010, one of many realizing they would never get another chance to fly into space.  He tragically passed away at the age of 50 in 2012 in a personal watercraft accident.  But thanks to Orbital ATK, his name at least can fly in space one more time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Space