Russian Proton-M fails at launch and crashes into spaceport

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Russia launched their Proton rocket Tuesday morning local time, carrying three satellites for the GLONASS navigation system. However, liftoff from site 81/24 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – which occurred at 02:38 UTC (08:38 local time) – ended seconds later, with a dramatic failure that resulted in a huge impact at the spaceport.


The launch occurred on time, with the Proton-M lifting off as per usual in its dramatic fashion. However, the rocket almost immediately veered to one side, before trying to correct itself, in turn sending it veering in the opposite direction.

Proton FailureThe vehicle then flew horizontal, before starting to plummet back to Earth, with its engines still firing. Aerodynamic stress saw the payload fairing and upper part of the rocket collapse and disintegrate before the Proton crashed back on to the pad complex.

No immediate reports of causalities have been forthcoming, although this is a concern given the close proximity the Russian engineers stage themselves, ahead of racing back to the pad less than a minute after launch.

However, unconfirmed Russian reports cite the rocket crashed near Pad 200 at the spaceport, resulting in no causalities.

International Launch Services (ILS) also confirmed no injures, noting the impact occurred in a safe area that was evacuated for the launch and all personnel are reported to be unharmed. From early reports, there was no damage to either launch Pad 39 or 24, near the impact area; there is only minor damage to nearby buildings.

The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) has set up a special commission to determine the cause of the failure and telemetry is currently being amassed and processed. ILS will also will conduct its own Failure Review Oversight Board (FROB).

For updates and screenshots of the failure, click here:

Proton-M Mission Overview:

Tuesday’s launch was the second of the year in support of Russia’s GLONASS program. It was also the second launch of navigation satellites in twenty-four hours, following India’s PSLV launch Monday evening with the IRNSS-1A satellite.

GLONASS is a series of Russian navigation satellites analogous to the American Global Positioning System. It is designed to provide global coverage, which requires 24 operational satellites. Today’s launch will carry three satellites to plane 2 of the constellation.

The current-generation satellites in the GLONASS constellation are Uragan-M spacecraft built by NPO PM. Designed for a lifespan of up to seven years; each satellite has a mass of 1,415 kilograms (3,120 lb). The spacecraft broadcast in the L band, providing signals with an accuracy of 100 meters for civilian users, and up to ten meters for military applications.

Tuesday’s launch was using Proton-M No.5115106754, also designated No.53543 and Blok DM-03 No.2L. The satellites were designated Block 47 of the GLONASS constellation, and had serial numbers 48, 49 and 50.

The Proton-M for the Glonass missionProton-M No.53543 is a “Phase I” Proton-M, incorporating upgrades compared to the original Proton-M that first flew in 2001. The first Phase I launch occurred in June 2004, with a Proton-M/Briz-M carrying Intelsat 10-02.

Unusually for a Phase I Proton, 53543′s first stage was powered by RD-276 engines, components introduced with the Phase II upgrade which have been retrofitted to a small number of Phase I Protons.

Six RD-276 engines powered the first stage. These engines were to loft the rocket for the first two minutes of flight, before the second stage was due to take over, which normally results in it igniting while still attached to the first stage, which would then be jettisoned.

The second stage was to be powered by an RD-0210 engine, for a burn of around three and a half minutes before it would have separated and the third stage’s RD-0212 engine would have ignited.

The third stage would then have been used to inject the fourth stage and payload into a low Earth parking orbit, with the fourth stage scheduled to separate from the third around nine minutes and 44 seconds after liftoff. The target orbit for third stage cutoff was a perigee of 179 kilometers, an apogee of 184 kilometers and 64.8 degrees inclination.

Blok DM-03The fourth stage was a Blok DM-03, which is powered by an RD-58MF engine. The Blok-DM series of upper stages, which are descended from the Blok-D developed as part of the N1 rocket, are preferred over the Briz-M for GLONASS launches as they provide greater insertion accuracy.

The Blok-DM was to have made two burns, the first to raise itself from the parking orbit into a transfer orbit, and then the second to circularize its orbit for spacecraft separation. The first burn was to occur 26 minutes and 23 seconds after the separation of the Blok-DM from the third stage, and would have lasted six minutes and 38 seconds.

Following the first burn, the Blok DM-03 would have coasted to apogee. Two hours, 46 minutes and 31 seconds after the end of the first burn, the second would have begun. Lasting 165 seconds, it would have raised the perigee of the Blok-DM’s orbit, reaching a 19,000-kilometre (12,000-mile) orbit at an inclination of 64.8 degrees.

Spacecraft separation would have occurred at 06:10:48 UTC, three hours, 32 minutes and 26 seconds after launch.

Proton-MTuesday’s GLONASS launch attempt was to be the second flight of the Blok DM-03 and the first flight of a Blok-DM on a Proton since the DM-03′s failed maiden flight in December 2010. That launch, which was also carrying three GLONASS satellites, failed to achieve orbit due to a fuelling error.

Propellant and oxidizer loading in Blok-D series upper stages is measured by the percentage of the tank that is full, rather than the mass or volume of fuel loaded. During fuelling ahead of the 2010 launch, the tanks were mistakenly filled to the percentages used on past launches with the Blok DM-2 upper stage, which had smaller tanks.

As a result of this, the first three stages were unable to lift the overloaded fourth stage into the planned parking orbit, and it burned up over the Pacific before it was scheduled to begin its first burn.

Prior to the introduction of the Blok DM-03, GLONASS launches were mostly made using the Blok DM-2, which appears to have now been retired. A single launch in 2002 used a Blok DM-2M upper stage.

In 2003 the unusual combination of a Proton-K and a Briz-M was used for one launch with three satellites, while the Proton-M/Briz-M was used for the most recent three-satellite launch, in November 2011. That launch had originally been slated for a Blok DM-03; however it was changed to Briz-M following the failure.

Soyuz 2-1BSince 2011 the Soyuz rocket has also been used to launch GLONASS satellites, flying in the Soyuz-2-1b configuration with a Fregat-M upper stage. As the Soyuz is smaller than the Proton, it can only carry one of the current-generation satellites per launch. To date four GLONASS launches have used Soyuz; three with Uragan-M satellites, and one with a prototype for the next-generation Uragan-K.

The Proton launched from pad 24 of site 81 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, having been erected on the pad on 28 June, following assembly at site 92A-50. Preparations for Monday’s launch included a fuelling test, with the rocket being rolled to the pad on 8 June to facilitate this before being returned to the assembly building, or MIK, four days later.

Pad 24Pad 81/24 was first used in 1967, for a Proton-K launch with a Blok-D upper stage which failed to orbit a Soyuz-L1 test flight. It was the second of the Proton’s four launch pads to enter service, following pad 23 but ahead of pads 39 and 40 at site 200.

Pad 24 was the launch site for three space stations; Salyuts 1, 4 and 6 were all launched from the complex, which has also supported missions to the Moon, Mars and Venus.

Tuesday’s launch – despite its failure – was technically the nineteenth orbital launch of a Russian or former Soviet rocket this year, a figure which includes a Soyuz launch from French Guiana, a failed Zenit launch from the Odyssey platform in the Pacific Ocean and the final flight of the Angara-derived Naro-1 rocket, launched as part of a joint venture between Russia and South Korea. It is the fifth Proton launch of the year.

The next Proton launch was expected to occur on 20 July, when a Proton-M/Briz-M will be used for a commercial launch conducted by International Launch Services, to orbit the Astra 2E satellite for SES. However, this will now be delayed, pending an investigation into Tuesday’s failure.

The Blok-DM, however, will next be used in a Zenit launch, currently scheduled for the end of August, with the Amos 4 satellite – for that launch the Blok DM-SLB configuration will be used, the next DM-03 launch will be atop another Proton in 2014, carrying either three more GLONASS satellites or the Ekspress-AM8 communications satellite.

The next GLONASS launch was expected late this year, with a Soyuz-2-1B/Fregat-M launching a single Uragan-M satellite from Plesetsk. That mission’s launch date will now be under review.

(Images via Roscosmos and Tsenki TV)

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