Breeze-M under investigation – moon to aid

by Chris Bergin

The Breeze-M upper stage of the Proton launch vehicle is undergoing a dual investigation, following last week’s failure to place the ArabSat-4A into its correct orbit. A plan is emerging to correct its orbit via a trip around the moon.

The failure occurred when the Breeze-M upper stage shut down 200 seconds too early into its second burn of 1851 seconds. The investigation is expected to last a month.

The launch was overseen by ILS (International Launch Services), who have formed a Failure Review Oversight Board, led by Eric Laursen – well known to the public for giving his expert views during the ILS webcasts of missions, while also being the vice president of ILS and their chief engineer.

On the Russian side, a state commission is being set up led by Victor Remishevsky, deputy director of the space agency, Roscosmos. Deputy chairmen are Yuri Bakhvalov, first deputy general designer from Khrunichev, which built the Proton vehicle and the Breeze M upper stage; and Alexander Chulkov, Roscosmos director of payload deployment systems.

It was a bad start to the year for the Russians, who were coming back from a break following an ambitious – and successful – end to 2005, which included five launches in the space of nine days at the end of December.

This year also sees a packed schedule of missions from the primary launch facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – with the Russians taking little time to clarify that the failure would not affect their manifest.

As far as what caused the failure, rumours have been rife, ranging from the upper stage burning through its own systems, to a failure of old, refurbished parts – alleged to have been included in the stage to aid the tight processing timeline. 

The satellite was built by EADS for Saudi-based ArabSat, and is designed to transmit television programmes to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe from a geostationary orbit of 35,700 kilometres – and is currently too shallow to be of any use.

However, all may not be lost for spacecraft, as a plan is thought to be emerging where the satellitte will take a trip around the moon to correct its orbit.

This would employ an alternative trajectory, sending ArabSat-4 – which was separated from the Breeze-M stage automatically due to the failure – on a trip towards the moon, with its gravity then sling-shotting it around the moon and back towards a circular orbit around the Earth – via another corrective manoeuvre.

This has only been previously attempted once, with the Asiasat 3 satellite, following a similar failure, but the ambitious plan worked.

As far as the future of the Breeze-M, its previously good mission history should help its future, following the result of the investigation. To date there have been 15 launches involving the Breeze-M, with this being the first failure.

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