Tag Archives: Soyuz

Progress MS-07 flies on the second attempt

Last Thursday, the Soyuz rocket experienced a very rare abort when one of two umbilicals failed to separate at the appropriate time.  This cost the perfect geometry required to attempt a new two-orbit direct ascent approach, so they reset for Saturday, with the plan of reverting to the traditional two-day chase.  Today’s launch was carried out flawlessly, and Progress MS-07 is on its way to the ISS.

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Launch/landing updates

It’s been a while since I’ve posted; work’s been crazy busy!  So I’ll quick catch you up with some of what’s gone up and down since I last posted:

On September 17, the latest Dragon capsule (CRS-12) returned from the ISS with a two tons of research material and hardware on board, including a population of laboratory mice sent into space to study effect on eyesight and movement.

On September 21, a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome placed the latest element of the GLONASS M navigation constellation into orbit.

On September 23, an Atlas V out of Vandenburg Air Force Base carried the classified NROL-42 into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Obviously, they won’t tell us much about the payload, but the mission patch and the launch site both suggest a polar orbiting spacecraft.  The size of the fairing and quantity of boosters both suggest a very big spacecraft, which is fairly typical for spy satellites.  It is believed to be a signals intelligence spacecraft, which means its job will likely be to intercept communications.  Maybe.  😉

Lastly, the Tianzhou 1 spacecraft returned to Earth in pieces last Friday.  It was supposed to; it was an experimental robotic resupply and refueling spacecraft similar in function to Progress, which also undergoes a destructive reentry at the end of its mission.  Tianzhou 1 completed a successful mission docking with the uninhabited Tiangong 2 space station, transferring propellant, and then later undocking and safely disposing of itself.  Tiangong 2 is not expected to host any more human occupants, but remains in orbit as a procedures testbed for ground controllers.  It is not clear when the next space station will fly; China intends to greatly increase the size and functionality of their stations, but they have had a major setback with the failure of the last Long March 5 rocket.  This is the heaviest rocket they’ve built to date, and is intended to place the major elements of their new modular space station in orbit, but with a 50/50 operational record after two flights, some more work is needed before it can carry such valuable cargo.

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Soyuz seizes second place in the “most payloads” race

Not that it’s exactly a race anymore; the game has clearly changed massively with satellite operators such as Planet Labs, the company also largely responsible for PSLV seizing first place in this category.  Planet Labs placed 88 of its “Dove” CubeSats into orbit on a PSLV last February, and another 48 aboard Soyuz last Friday.  These are imagery spacecraft, designed to completely rewrite the rules of satellite image procurement — instead of building massive, expensive, highly sophisticated spacecraft akin to spy satellites, they’re building CubeSat with relatively inexpensive cameras — but lots of them.  Their resolution is less, but the availability is much greater, and although the satellites are so small and light that they don’t stay in orbit for more than a few years, this also means they’re self-cleaning and easily replenished because they are so cheap.  It also partially compensates for their small size — they’re dwarfed by the big commercial imaging sats (to say nothing of spy satellites) but they fly much, much lower.

The primary payload aboard this flight was Kanopus-V-IK, a Russian civilian imaging satellite operated by Roscosmos for the purpose of emergency response.  It carries multispectral imagers particularly useful for tracking wildfires.  Kanopus-V-IK is a traditional spacecraft, large and equipped with propulsion.  The Doves were not its only smallsat neighbors for the flight; other payloads included eight Lemurs from Spire Global (to provide weather forecasting information), three CICERO cubesates from GeoOptics (Spire’s closest competitor), two LandMapper-BC cubesats from Astro Digital, Tyvak’s experimental NanoACE (to test propulsion for nanosatellites; Tyvak is a launch broker), the Flying Laptop (a smallsat capable of searching for NEOs while testing a new type of On Board Computer) from the University of Stuttgart, Technosat from the Technical University of Berlin, Norsat 1 & 2 (Norway’s first scientific satellites, to improve merchant marine tracking and communications, and originally scheduled to fly on a Soyuz out of French Guiana), the Japanese WNISAT 1R small weather satellite, the crowd-funded Mayak solar sail from Moscow Polytechnic University (which could become brighter than the ISS when deployed), and four other Russian CubeSats.

FYI, third place is 37 satellites.  It was set in 2014 by a Ukrainian-built Dnepr rocket out of Dombarovsky Air Base in Russia.  The fact that the three records have all been set in the last five years — and with such a huge gap — is indicative of a major trend in spaceflight.  Things are changing.

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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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Soyuz flies to geosynchronous orbit

Soyuz has just completed its first launch to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying Hispasat 36W-1, a commercial Spanish commsat, to space.  Normally, Ariane V would have been used for the flight, but the mighty rocket is booked out for a few years; Hispasat got to fly much sooner by selecting the Soyuz.

Other than the very distinctive conical shape of the rocket with its unique booster configuration, Soyuz has another feature distinguishing it from the other boosters that fly from Kourou — its bright orange plume.  All the other vehicles that fly from here include solid propellant — Vega’s first three stages are purely solid, and Ariane V features a pair of large solid rocket motors.  But Soyuz is all kerosene and LOX, so the plume is bright and short.

There is one intriguing difference to Soyuz operations out of Kourou — although the rocket is assembled horizontally, per its design, the payload is integrated vertically, per normal Arianespace operations and per the requirements of the payload.  (Russia has always favored horizontal integration, but the rest of the world generally favors vertical integration.  As with every engineering decision, there are trade-offs, and neither choice is fundamentally “right”.)  So the rocket rolls to the pad without a payload, and then the payload is added.  Arianespace released this lovely video showing the highlights of vehicle assembly:

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Launch of Soyuz MS-03 with the ISS crew and Ariane V with Galileo satellites

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.

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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:

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