Soyuz 2-1B launch with Meteor-M ends in apparent Fregat-M failure

by William Graham

Russia’s Soyuz-2-1b rocket launched with the Meteor-M weather satellite on Tuesday, alongside an international secondary payload of eighteen small satellites. However, the Fregat Upper Stage suffered an apparent failure which will have resulted in the loss of all the satellites. The Soyuz lifted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia at 14:41:46 Yakutsk Time (05:41 UTC, 08:41 Moscow Time).

Russian Launch:

The primary payload for Tuesday’s launch was Meteor-M No.2-1, which was to be the latest member of Russia’s Meteor low Earth orbit weather satellite system. It was the third satellite in the current-generation Meteor-M series. Carrying a suite of instruments, Meteor-M No.2-1 will maintain and expand Russia’s weather forecasting capabilities.

However, the mission apparently failed, with Russian news agency Interfax claiming the preliminary analysis points to “human error” in relation to the Fregat-M Upper Stage, which resulted in one of the early burns sending the payload stack into the ocean.

Tuesday’s launch was the second to take place from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a new launch site that has been constructed in eastern Russia on the site of the former Svobodny missile base.

Although several orbital launches had previously been made from Svobodny by solid-fuelled Start rockets, the first launch from Vostochny took place in April 2016 when a Soyuz-2-1a rocket with a Volga upper stage orbited the Mikhailo Lomonosov research satellite. The Meteor-M No.2-1 launch marked the first time Soyuz-2-1b has flown from Vostochny, and the first mission flown from the site to use a Fregat upper stage.

Vostochny’s Soyuz launch pad, Site 1S, is one of eight built worldwide for Soyuz or the R-7 missile from which it was derived. Soyuz also has two launch complexes at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, one at Arianespace’s Centre Spatial Guyanais in Kourou, French Guiana and four at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia – two of which are currently operational.

Meteor-M No.2-1 and its co-passengers were to be delivered into orbit by a Soyuz-2-1b rocket, flying with a Fregat-M upper stage. This is the same type of rocket used to deploy Meteor-M No.2, while Meteor-M No.1 also used a Soyuz-2-1b but with a standard Fregat, as opposed to the modernized Fregat-M that has now replaced it.

Soyuz itself has been flying since the mid-1960s. A development of the earlier Voskhod rocket, it is derived from Sergei Korolev’s R-7 missile, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which first flew in 1957. Soyuz-2, a modernized version of the rocket incorporating digital flight control systems and upgraded engines, was introduced with a suborbital test flight in 2004. The first orbital Soyuz-2 launches were made in 2006.

Soyuz is a three-stage rocket, with the first stage – consisting of four liquid-fuelled strap-on boosters and a core second stage, all of which are ground-lit and burn in parallel up to first stage separation, and a Blok-I third stage.

There are three different versions of the Soyuz-2. The Soyuz-2-1a is a modernized version of Soyuz, otherwise staying true to the rocket’s historical design. The more powerful Soyuz-2-1b introduces an RD-0124 third-stage engine in place of the RD-0110 used by the Soyuz-2-1a.

The Soyuz-2-1v, a newer addition to carry lighter payloads, omits the first stage altogether and replaces the core stage engine with an NK-33.

Tuesday’s launch saw the Soyuz-2-1b’s first and second stages ignite about sixteen seconds before liftoff was due, building up to full thrust just before the zero mark in the countdown. Each of the four first-stage boosters is powered by an RD-107A engine, while the second stage uses an RD-108A.

The first and seconds stages burned together for the first 118 seconds of the flight, after which the first stage was jettisoned. The dramatic visual effect of Soyuz’s four boosters separating has become known as the Korolev Cross, after the rocket’s designer Sergei Korolev.

Following first stage separation, the second stage continued to burn for another 159 seconds. About a minute before the end of second stage flight, the payload fairing separated from the nose of the rocket. Second stage separation itself took place at the four-minute, 47-second mark in the flight.

Soyuz employs a “fire-in-the-hole” staging method, with the third stage’s RD-0124 engine igniting while the second stage is still firing. The Blok-I third stage burned for four minutes and 36 seconds, placing the payload and the Fregat-M upper stage on a suborbital trajectory.

Fregat-M ignited a minute after third-stage separation, performing a 77-second burn to inject itself into an initial parking orbit. It is not clear if this is when data was lost, resulting in the failure.

The timeline called for a 46-minute, 44-second coast, before stage restart for a 57-second burn that would place Meteor-M No.2-1 into its planned sun-synchronous orbit. About sixty-one seconds after the end of the second burn, Meteor was to separate from Fregat to begin its mission.

The expected orbital parameters at spacecraft separation were supposed to be a perigee of 788.9 kilometers (490.2 miles, 426.0 nautical miles), an apogee of 828.7 km (514.9 mi, 447.5 nmi) and inclination of 98.57 degrees.

After the Meteor-M satellite was to be deployed, Fregat was to begin a series of maneuvers to place its secondary payloads into their correct orbits. Thirty-eight minutes and 53 seconds after Meteor separation, the stage was to conduct a 23-second burn to achieve a 581.6-by-814.2-kilometre (361.4 by 505.9 miles, 314.0 by 439.6 nautical miles) orbit at 97.95 degrees for IDEA OSG 1.

This satellite was to separate a little over forty minutes later, between two hours, 19 minutes, 57 seconds and two hours, 23 minutes, 17 seconds mission elapsed time.

Two hours, 31 minutes and 35 seconds after liftoff, Fregat would make a fourth burn of about 16 seconds. This would place it into an approximately 590-by-600-kilometer (about 370 miles or 320 nautical miles) orbit, inclined at 97.76 degrees.

One minute and forty seconds after the end of the burn, Baumanets-2 was to separate. Deployment of the remaining satellites, except for Telesat’s LEO-2 Vantage, was to take place over the space of fifteen minutes, commencing four minutes and 43 seconds after Baumanets separates.

Fregat’s fifth burn was to begin at three hours, 17 minutes and 35 seconds mission elapsed time, raising itself into a transfer orbit to reach LEO-2’s higher deployment altitude. A forty-five second sixth burn was to be made following a 50-minute, 17-second coast phase to raise the orbit’s perigee. Three minutes and 20 seconds after the end of this burn, LEO-2 was to separate from Fregat.

The planned deployment orbit was 996.8 by 1002.2 kilometers (619.4 by 622.7 miles, 538.2 by 541.1 nautical miles) at an inclination of 99.46 degrees.

Fregat was to conclude its mission with a seventh burn to deorbit itself. Beginning five hours and 55 seconds after liftoff, the burn was to last about 38 seconds. Fregat was to reenter the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean about 34 minutes later.

Tuesday’s launch was the eighteenth of the year for a Russian vehicle, including Soyuz launches conducted by Arianespace out of Kourou. It is the thirteenth Soyuz mission of the year.

Soyuz’ next flight is expected on Saturday, with another Soyuz-2-1b flying from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome to deploy a Lotos military reconnaissance satellite. It is not known if this failure will cause a standdown of this next lauch. The next launch from Vostochny is currently slated for 22 December, with a Soyuz-2-1a/Fregat-M deploying a pair of Kanopus-V remote sensing satellites.

Program Overview – All Satellites Now Classed as Lost:

The Meteor program was started by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, with the first experimental satellite – Kosmos 44 – deployed by a Vostok-2M rocket in August 1964. Early satellites given Kosmos designations – a catch-all name that the Soviet Union used for military satellites, experimental missions and failed planetary probes and which Russia continues to use for its military spacecraft.

The first satellite to use the Meteor name was launched in March 1969. Between 1964 and 1977, thirty-six first-generation Meteor-1 satellites were launched – one of which was lost in a January 1969 launch failure. Six further first-generation Meteors were converted to the Meteor-Priroda specification and used for remote-sensing missions. These launched between 1974 and 1981.

Second-generation Meteor-2 satellites began to launch in July 1975, initially also using the Vostok-2M rocket but switching to the Tsyklon-3 from 1982. Based on the Meteor-1 design, but incorporating significant enhancements and additional instruments, twenty-one Meteor-2 spacecraft were launched – the last in August 1993.

A further enhanced third-generation series, Meteor-3, consisted of seven satellites launched by the Tsyklon-3 between 1984 and 1994 – the first of which was placed into an incorrect orbit.

Meteor-3 was to have been replaced by the enhanced Meteor-3M series of satellites, a unified replacement for both Meteor and the Resurs remote sensing satellites. At least four satellites were planned, but only one was ever launched.

Meteor-3M No.1 was deployed by a Zenit-2 rocket in December 2001 and operated for a little over four years – exceeding its three-year design life – before its power system failed. With the rest of the Meteor-3M series canceled, Russia’s next weather satellite would not launch until 2009.

Launched aboard a Soyuz-2-1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage, flying from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Meteor-M No.1 was placed into orbit on 17 September 2009 to begin a five-year mission. An improved second spacecraft, Meteor-M No.2, was launched in July 2014, by which time Meteor-M No.1 was in limited operation as some of its instruments had begun to fail.

Meteor-M No.2-1 is based on Meteor-M No.2 and carries a similar suite of instruments. Its MSU-MR imager will capture wide-angle, low-resolution views of the Earth to monitor cloud and ice cover of the surface, imaging the Earth at visible-light and infrared wavelengths. The KMSS-2 imager will complement this with higher-resolution visible-light observations.

The satellite’s other weather-monitoring instruments are a microwave radiometer – MTVZA-GYa – and an infrared Fourier spectrometer – IKFS-2. These will monitor the temperature and humidity of Earth’s atmosphere, with IKFS also expected to study the ozone layer.

The Severjanin radar-imaging and GGAK-M heliophysics research payloads that were flown on the previous Meteor-M satellites are not present on Meteor-M No.2-1.

In addition to its meteorological instruments, Meteor-M No.2-1 carries two communications payloads. BRK, or SSPD, will collect and relay data from remote unmanned weather stations on the Earth’s surface, while RK-SM-MKA will be used to relay distress signals from aircraft, ships or vehicles as part of the Kospas-SARSAT program to aid search-and-rescue operations.

Meteor-M No.2-1 was built by Russia’s VNIIEM Corporation. The 2,750-kilogram (6,060 lb) satellite is expected to operate for at least five years.

As well as carrying Meteor-M No.2-1 into orbit, Tuesday’s launch will deploy eighteen smaller satellites as secondary payloads.

Baumanets-2, which is being flown for Moscow’s Bauman University, is a 100-kilogram (220-lb) satellite built to give students at the university experience with building an operating a satellite, as well as to conduct several experiments in low Earth orbit.

The satellite carries a camera for earth observation, a w-band communications experiment that will make use of the Globalstar satellite network and the Franco-Russian Payload (FRP or FRIENDS), developed in conjunction with France’s Montpellier University to validate integrated circuits in orbit and provide data on their exposure to the space radiation environment.

Bauman University’s earlier Baumanets-1 satellite was lost in 2006 when a Dnepr rocket failed to achieve orbit.

Norway’s AISSat-3, which will be operated by the Norwegian Space Centre, or Norsk Romsenter, is a small satellite which will be used to relay Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships at sea. Built by the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTAIS) around a Generic Nanosatellite Bus (GNB), the 6.5-kilogram spacecraft is a follow-up to AISSat-1 and AISSat-2, which launched in 2010 and 2014 respectively.

A pair of Corvus-BC satellites, Corvus-BC 3 and 4, are being carried for US company Astro Digital. These six-unit CubeSats carry medium-resolution multi-spectral imaging payloads which will be used for area surveying. They follow two satellites launched in July aboard another Soyuz mission, and will form part of what is planned to be a thirty-satellite constellation once complete.

German Orbital Systems’ D-Star One satellite is a three-unit CubeSat which carries four radio modules. Two of these will be used for spacecraft operations and telemetry, with the other two being made available for amateur radio.

IDEA OSG 1, which is being flown for Japan’s Astroscale, is a 22-kilogram (49-pound) microsatellite which will study debris in the satellite’s environment to help refine models used to predict distribution of debris in orbit and the risks of collisions between such objects and operational satellites. Astroscale, which has headquarters in Singapore and Japan, was founded in 2013 with a goal of cleaning up space debris. IDEA OSG 1 is being flown for the company’s Japanese arm, which focuses on research and development.

The LEO-2 Vantage satellite is being carried aboard Tuesday’s mission for Canadian telecommunications company Telesat. LEO-2 is the first of two prototype satellites that Telesat have ordered as they investigate deploying a constellation of high-throughput communications satellites into low Earth orbit.

LEO-2 was built by Space Systems/Loral in conjunction with UTIAS. The other satellite, LEO-1, is expected to launch aboard India’s PSLV rocket when it returns to flight at the end of the year.

The Small Explorer for Advanced Missions (SEAM) is a three-unit CubeSat which was developed as part of a partnership led by Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in conjunction with the Swedish Space Centre (SSC) and industry. The satellite will serve as a demonstration mission for the consortium, testing the satellite platform in orbit while also carrying a scientific payload consisting of magnetometers, to investigate magnetic fields in the ionosphere – monitoring naturally-occurring and man-made electromagnetic waves – and to study currents in the aurora.

The remaining ten satellites are Lemur-2 spacecraft, being flown for US firm Spire Global.

These three-unit CubeSats form part of a large constellation that is being deployed into orbit: they are the fifty-eighth to sixty-seventh Lemur-2 spacecraft to be launched.

A single Lemur carries two payloads: STRATOS monitors atmospheric temperature, pressure and humidity by observing how signals from GPS satellites are affected when they pass through the atmosphere, while SENSE is used to collect and relay AIS signals from ships.

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