Assessing the Soyuz failure with Meridian – Redressing Russia’s internal woes

by Chris Bergin and William Graham

Just hours before the Soyuz TMA-03M successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS), another Russian Soyuz launch vehicle failed during its task to loft the Meridian-5 satellite into orbit. The failure became the main subject of a post-docking media briefing for TMA-03M, resulting in Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin portraying serious internal issues at the Agency.

Another Russian Failure:

Marking what has been an extremely tough year for the Russian Space Agency, this latest failure adds to the loss – and expected re-entry next month – of the Fobus-Grunt spacecraft, which failed to depart Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for its primary mission to Phobos.

The Mars mission failure – adding to the apparent jinx the Russians are blighted by when it comes to missions to the Red Planet – was even more painful, given the eventful year, which included a Proton-M’s Briz-M upper stage failing to deploy Russia’s Ekspress-AM4 communications satellite in August, soon followed by the third stage of the Russian Soyuz-U rocket prematurely shutting down, resulting in Progress M-12M crashing to Earth.

The Soyuz-2-1 rocket is a descendent of the R-7 Semyorka, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. The R-7 was designed by Sergei Korolev, and first flew in 1957. A modified version was used to launch the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on 4 October of that year.

The R-7 formed the basis for the Luna, Vostok, Voskhod, Molniya and Soyuz families of rockets, and to date all Soviet and Russian manned spaceflights have been launched using rockets derived from the R-7.

The Soyuz, which first flew in 1966, was a modification of the Voskhod rocket featuring an upgraded and lighter telemetry system, and more fuel efficient engines. It was initially used to launch only Soyuz spacecraft; however with the introduction of the Soyuz-U in 1973 it began to launch other satellites as well.

The Soyuz-U, which remains in service, is the most-flown orbital launch system ever developed, having made around 750 flights to date, plus around 90 more in the Soyuz-U2 configuration optimised to use synthetic propellant.

The Soyuz-2 was developed from the older Soyuz models, and features digital flight control systems and modernised engines. It first flew in 2004, and this is its twelfth launch.

Two variants are currently in service; the Soyuz-2-1a, and the Soyuz-2-1b which features an RD-0124 third stage engine which provides additional thrust. The RD-0124 was declared operational on 3 May 2011.

A third configuration, the Soyuz-2-1v, is currently under development and is expected to make its maiden flight next year. It features an NK-33 engine in place of the RD-108A used on the core stages of the other configurations, and does not include the strapon boosters used by other configurations.

The Soyuz-2 forms the basis for the Soyuz-ST rocket, which made its maiden flight from Kourou in French Guiana this year. The Soyuz-ST is optimised to fly from Kourou, and also incorporates a flight termination system and a modified telemetry system.

The launch of the Soyuz-ST carried two Galileo IOV-M1 satellites into orbit.

The core stage of the Soyuz-2, the Blok-A, is powered by a single RD-108A engine. This is augmented for the first two minutes of flight by four boosters, each of which is powered by an RD-107A engine. The Fregat Upper Stage, is powered by an S5.98M engine, which uses unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine as propellant and nitrogen tetroxide as an oxidiser.

The Fregat first flew in 2000, and has been used on Soyuz-U, Soyuz-FG, Soyuz-2 and Zenit rockets.

Soyuz 2.1b Failure/Internal Issues:

There are conflicting reports as to the cause of the failure, with the latest rumor in the Russian media claiming the fairing did not jettison. However, most reports point to a serious failure of the third stage – a claim made by one of the leading Russian reporters, Analoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.

“According to industry sources, the analysis of available telemetry on the fuel line pressure before the entrance to the engine’s injection system indicated a possible bulging of the combustion chamber No. 1, leading to its burn through and a catastrophic fuel leak.”

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The resulting incident led to the remains of the vehicle and spacecraft – which was designed to provide communication between ships, planes and coastal stations on the ground – crashing to Earth, with some reports claiming debris landed in a populated area, with one large piece crashing through the roof of a house in Siberia.  No injuries have yet been reported.

Despite the Soyuz TMA-03M post-docking media briefing opening with a request to focus questions on the successful arrival of Oleg Kononenko, André Kuipers and Don Pettit, journalists soon asked questions about the earlier failure.

Mr Popovkin initially seemed open to discuss the failure, noting the engine in question was made in 2009, and while commissions had been installed – likely relating to the fallout from other failure investigations – “not everything can be checked off blueprints”.

Mr Popovkin was surprisingly frank in his remarks about an Agency he took over from Mr Anatoly Perminov earlier this year, using words such as “crisis”, as much as such comments were passed on via an interpreter.

“This proves there’s areas of the program which are in a sort of a crisis. Even now, I can probably say the problem is with the engine, but to be more certain we will look at the telemetry. By (Saturday) will be have results which we will be able to report,”

Then came the somewhat shocking revelation that the Russian space program is – as much as it had been feared – seriously struggling with its need to modernize and optimize, likely driven by both funding shortages and demographics.

“Yes, there are problems. We need to optimize and modernize – we need to modernize the tracking system (for example),” the Roscosmos chief added. “But we’re only at a level of 33 percent (in this process). We need to modernize all the facilities because we can’t keep an eye on everything.

“It’s also the ageing of human resources, given the trouble we had in the 1990s when quite a lot of people left and nobody came to replace them – they should have come in the 90s.”

Citing the demographic imbalance, Mr Popovkin noted that they would have to trust their young workers more, while “replacing lots of leaders and heads”.

Potential ISS Impact:

These problems are extremely untimely for NASA, who have put all their eggs into one Russian basket for their ability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

A return to domestic crewed launch ability – via NASA’s Commercial Crew drive – could be as far away as 2017, while there is no going back on the almost stubborn insistence on ensuring the retired Shuttle fleet had their wings clipped to avoid any restart capability, leaving the United States with no choice but to continue to pay Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to buy seats on Soyuz launch vehicles.

“From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned spaceflight, the era of reliability,” Roscosmos proudly proclaimed, just prior to the failure of the Progress vehicle, which almost resulted in the decrewing of the $100 billion outpost.

And now this latest failure may also impact on the Station, on the day the ISS finally returned to a six member crew. This impact will depend on the actual root cause of the failure, and its commonality with the Soyuz used for TMA and Progress launches.

Not all Soyuz vehicles are alike, with different configurations and engines used on the variants. For example, the Progress resupply ships are launched by the Soyuz-U, Soyuz TMA-M is launched by the Soyuz-FG, whereas the now-lost Meridian satellite was launched by Soyuz 2-1b.

With differences – such as combustion chamber injectors and avionics – between the vehicles, some specific failures may not result in the grounding of all variants of the Soyuz.

However, if the third stage engine is confirmed to be the issue, this could have a more severe impact, given it was the third stage engine – despite using a different engine – which failed during the Progress M-12M launch, potentially pointing to a larger issue with the launch vehicle, such as plumbing and lines.

With information pointing to the failure occurring at 134 seconds into the 270 second burn of the third stage, the issue could be related to a plumbing failure, causing a fuel leak, which would have either resulted in the engine shutting down, or even exploding.

The Progress failure was later revealed as being attributed to a malfunction in the gas generator of the third stage’s RD-0110 engine, and while the RD-0124 involved with Friday’s Soyuz is a different design from the RD-0110, there are plenty of failure modes that could also impact the Soyuz-FG – such a procedure failure in launch vehicle manufacture, engine manufacture, or launch processing.

Such a common issue across the variants of the Soyuz launch vehicles would be speculation, but such failure modes could exist via fuel contamination or incorrect fuelling.

If the problem is related to flight test/design issues with the new RD-0124 engine, unrelated to the RD-0110, the crew launch Soyuz-FG and Progress carrier Soyuz-U may avoid any potential grounding, which – if long term – would have serious impacts on the ISS’ ability to remain at a six person crew.

Additional information will be added when Roscosmos reveal their telemetry findings on Saturday. Thanks to Jonathan McDowell for his additional insight used in this article.

(Images via Roscosmos, NASA and Starsem).

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